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During spring break a couple of years ago, Erin Gemmell, a freshman at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, joked to her friend that playing the video game Just Dance on her Nintendo Wii would help them get back into shape for swimming. It was a fun way to exercise without having to go to the pool or gym, she remembers.
Now, it may be one of the only workouts Gemmell can do for the foreseeable future.
In response to the global coronavirus pandemic, scores of sports facilities around the country are closed indefinitely, and people who aren’t quarantined or self-isolating are encouraged to stay at least six feet away from other people in public. Major sporting events like the NCAA basketball tournaments have been canceled, and the NBA, MLB, and NHL seasons have all been suspended or postponed.
And on Tuesday morning, the inevitable happened. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the Olympic Games, originally scheduled to run in Tokyo from July 24 to Aug. 9, would be postponed until 2021, just days after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted the event would go on as scheduled.
That leaves Olympic hopefuls like Gemmell, 15, to deal with an unprecedented scenario that continues to develop on a daily basis. Only three Olympic Games—in 1916, 1940, and 1944—have been canceled, all due to wars, but this will be the first time the modern Olympics are postponed because of a global pandemic.
A lot of unanswered questions remain. By shifting the time of the Olympics, the qualification process will be modified, forcing athletes to adjust schedules that some have been planning years in advance. The chaotic past few weeks have left some athletes scrambling to figure out what’s next.
“I think it’s just hard to keep up,” Gemmell says. “You think, OK, they’ve canceled all the swim meets through April, next day, it’s through the end of April, and then, the next day, they might move the Olympics. It’s hard to keep up and adapt your training based on what’s happening.”
The closure of training facilities have impacted Olympic hopefuls around the world. In swimming, the struggles of high profile swimmers like D.C. native Katie Ledecky and Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel to find a pool to swim in put a spotlight on the inability of Olympic athletes to find safe ways to train properly or adequately prepare for the Games in light of the growing pandemic.
That situation appeared to be a breaking point for USA Swimming. On March 20, the governing body led the way in calling for the Olympics and Paralympics to be postponed by one year. Similar announcements from USA Track & Field and USA Gymnastics followed shortly after. Two days later, Team Canada announced it would not be sending any athletes to the 2020 Games.
And after weeks of assuring people that the Games would go on as planned, Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, said early Monday it would begin simulating and examining postponement scenarios. That afternoon, Dick Pound, a longtime member of the IOC, told USA Today that the Games would be postponed, likely to 2021.
Gemmell’s father, Bruce, knows and understands how important the Olympics are. As a coach at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP), one of the country’s top elite swim clubs, Bruce coaches a number of Olympic Trials qualifiers, including Erin, and coached Ledecky when she swam for NCAP. He is also the chair of the steering committee for USA Swimming’s national team and is on USA Swimming’s board of directors.
He believes postponing the Games was “the only choice.”
“It takes the pressure off of us in the immediate sense,” Bruce says. “But we sort of had the pressure taken off of us by default; we couldn’t get in the water anyway.”
The question of what the sport of swimming will look like going forward lingers in his mind. Even though the Olympics are postponed, athletes won’t be able to return to their routines. Restrictions are still in place for much of the world as the pandemic rages. As of Tuesday morning, the World Health Organization has reported over 334,000 cases of COVID-19 in the world, with nearly 15,000 confirmed deaths.
Bruce envisions that there may be a “new normal” in the way swimmers train. NCAP practices often have as many as 60 swimmers in the pool at a time.
“Some of the people who have still been training, nationally and around the world, they’re training in situations where it’s one athlete per lane or staggered athletes from one end of the pool to another end of the pool,” he says. “The elite or college program athletes, it may be easier to adapt to. Club settings such as ours are not financially viable to train in that environment. We may need to reinvent the whole training dynamic of how to train high school and club level swimmers.”
Some elite athletes like Julia Rizk made life decisions based on the timing of the Olympics. When Rizk graduated from the Ohio State University in December 2019 with a finance degree, she had plenty of options. She finished her collegiate career as an NCAA champion in the indoor mile, earning All-American and All-Academic Honors.
A consulting company in Columbus, Ohio, offered her a position before she graduated. Rizk’s parents urged her to accept the lucrative job. But Rizk had other plans. She decided to become a professional runner with the D.C.-based and Under Armour-sponsored District Track Club. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she reasoned, were only seven months away, and that presented an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I want to make the Olympics,” Rizk says. “I want to be an Olympian … I’ve watched them ever since I was a kid. To be able to say I’m an Olympian would make me happy beyond belief.”
Rizk’s original plan was to run the Olympic standard in the 800 meters sometime in late April or early May—assuming there would be meets available to race. Afterward, she intended to fly to Egypt to obtain her Egyptian citizenship and hoped to eventually qualify for its Olympic team. (Rizk’s father was born in Egypt.)
Now, even though Rizk, 23, concludes that delaying the Games was the “right decision,” she says that she’ll need to reassess her long term future in the sport. Her parents did not expect her to be a professional runner, and she plans to sit down with them and her coach, Tom Brumlik, in the coming weeks to discuss her schedule for the next year.
“Obviously as a professional runner, I am in some ways supporting myself, but I still lean on my parents a little bit, more so than I would be if I had a corporate job,” Rizk says. “So I think it will just be a difficult conversation to have with my parents whether I want to continue on that path.”
Unlike with Rizk, the postponement of the Olympics will make life less challenging for Khaleel Asgarali. On March 5, Asgarali received an email from the Trinidad and Tobago Table Tennis Association informing him that he had been selected to play in the Latin American singles and mixed qualification tournament for the Olympics scheduled for April 15 to 19. The tournament has since been provisionally suspended.
Two days later, Asgarali, 33, celebrated taking over the Washington DC Table Tennis Center (WDCTT) with an open house attended by approximately 175 table tennis enthusiasts. On March 16, he had to close the center indefinitely.
Asgarali felt relieved when he heard about the postponement. He can now focus on the survival and success of WDCTT.
“It definitely affects my plans,” he says. “For me, it’s a benefit, more time to prepare, more time to get things in order. It would’ve been way too chaotic to jump start business, at same time trying to see if I had time to train for the Olympics. Now have time to prepare, more time to get things in order.”
The U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming were scheduled to be held in Omaha, Nebraska, from June 21 to 28. A new schedule has yet to be determined. Erin Gemmell has qualified to swim the 100, 200, and 400 freestyle and 200 individual medley events at the trials.
Originally, Gemmell wanted to participate in an international exchange program at her school in the fall after the completion of the Olympic Games, regardless of whether or not she made the team. But with the Olympics delayed, those plans may be on hold.
She will need those months to train for meets leading up to the 2021 Olympic Trials. Gemmell feels less pressure now that the Olympics are postponed.
“The past couple of days, before we knew what was going to happen, I kind of felt bad that I’m missing out on swimming,” she says. “But I can do the same amount now and feel better about what I’m doing.”
No matter what happens moving forward, Gemmell is still going to work out at home to maintain fitness. In addition to playing Just Dance, she runs about three times a week and does dryland exercises. She doesn’t want to think about not being able to go back to the pool for months. But if that happens, Gemmell now has a backup plan for when she returns to school next semester.
“Maybe I’d pick up cross country,” she says, “because I’d be pretty good at running at that point.”
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