Jessica Long rarely lives outside the water for more than a day or two. Even during her two-week honeymoon in South Africa, the 23-time Paralympian medalist found time to train.
So she watched a major part of her world go dark as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered her training pool in Towson and others around the state over the past week. For two days, she and another Paralympic swimmer scrambled to a Boys & Girls Club in Salisbury; then, it closed as well.
With no place to prepare, the 28-year-old Long took a deep breath and allowed herself to feel relief and sadness when she heard the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics would be postponed until 2021.
“They made the best decision given the state we’re in,” Long said Tuesday, a few hours after Japanese and Olympic officials made the news official. “As athletes, the bigger picture here is the safety of all of us, to stop more deaths from happening. I’m just really glad they called it and didn’t let it drag on another month. It’s a little weird, but now it’s time to focus on next year.”
Other Olympians and Paralympians with ties to Maryland offered similar thoughts Tuesday as they processed an unprecedented interruption to their careers. Many had seen the writing on the wall, as training facilities closed and competitors under shelter-in-place orders could not practice. The postponement also will raise questions for athletes nearing the ends of their careers.
“I think it’s going to be different for everyone, but there are a lot of people right now who are struggling, a lot of businesses,” said Helen Maroulis, a Rockville native who in 2016 became the first American woman to win a gold medal in wrestling. “As athletes, I really think we should set the example of having a resilient mindset. You’ve got to think: What’s the purpose of sport? And it’s to instill those characteristics and values we want to embody. We want to rise above this challenge.”
When the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs closed last Wednesday, Donnell Whittenburg figured postponement of the Tokyo Games was inevitable. The Baltimore native and member of the U.S. men’s national gymnastics team welcomed the decision.
“It just evens out the playing field for everybody that might not have places to train because of the virus,” he said Tuesday afternoon from Colorado Springs. “I feel like for everyone as a whole and to keep everybody safe in general, let’s postpone it until we can figure something out and then we can go on from there. Health is more important, and this is bigger than sports.”
The International Olympic Committee’s decision to postpone was unprecedented in a time of peace. In a joint statement, IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cited World Health Organization data in determining that the Olympics had to be delayed “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
There have been more than 400,000 reported cases worldwide of the COVID-19 strain with ore than 18,000 coronavirus-related deaths. In the U.S., many states have declared emergencies, closed schools and businesses and ordered citizens to avoid congregating.
Such policies have affected athletes directly.
Reisterstown resident and Franklin graduate Olivia Gruver was aiming to compete in the pole vault for the United States. A senior at the University of Washington, she said the state enforced a “stay at home” order Monday. She and boyfriend Tim Duckworth, a decathlete hoping to represent Great Britain in the Olympics, were ordered off a track at a high school near campus.
“Today, we’re taking the time to regroup and see what we’re going to do for training,” she said. “We’ll probably just be outside on hills. Now that it’s been postponed, we have the time to regroup and figure out what we’re going to do.”
“There are a lot of sports that are very unstable at the moment — from training and social distancing and a lot of events being canceled,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard to see how well you’re performing in a competition environment. ... I would support a postponement.”
With training options limited, athletes have found other ways to entertain themselves. Whittenburg has spent hours playing “Call of Duty” and “NBA 2K.” Gruver and Duckworth binged the comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Romanchuk is trying to learn to speak French and Russian.
But none of them said the delay will dissuade their ambitions to compete in Tokyo.
“This is just a delay,” Gruver said. “I will never cancel my dream. I will keep fighting until it actually happens.”
USA Swimming helped lead the charge for postponing the Tokyo Games, and swimmers and coaches with ties to Maryland expressed relief Tuesday that what they considered common sense had prevailed.
Michael Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who now leads the program at Arizona State, called the decision to postpone “clearly in the best interest of everybody involved — the athletes, the fans everyone.”
Bowman recognizes the sweeping logistical difficulties posed by rescheduling an Olympics but said that athletes simply would not have been able to prepare in fair or safe fashion.
His training group of six Olympic hopefuls has gathered to work out once a day since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. But 18 other Arizona State swimmers with designs on competing at Olympic Trials have been unable to train at all.
“Not knowing was forcing people to try and get in training in a situation where there basically is no training,” Bowman said. “Which No. 1 is no way to prepare for an Olympics and No. 2 is encouraging people to go against social distancing and the things that we’re trying to do right now to get rid of this virus.”
Bowman, who served as head coach for the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 2016, said the postponement could be difficult on athletes nearing the end of their careers. Some will have to decide whether to remain in training for another year or get on with their lives. Eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt, who trained with Bowman and Phelps in the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and remains part of Bowman’s elite group, faces such a choice at age 29.
“You know, we haven’t had the conversation yet,” Bowman said. “And we’re probably having it today, or at least the first part of it.”
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The postponement inspired mixed emotions for Schmitt. “The Olympics represent a time of joy bringing the world together,” she said in a text. “And it’s not possible for that to happen in 2020 because of health and safety concerns. Even though the date has changed, it doesn’t mean our goals have changed. It has thankfully been postponed and not cancelled so our plans have changed slightly but as a human being (and I know no matter if you’re an athlete or not) we are able to adapt and find opportunity.”
Said Bowman: The positives are that everybody can take a break for a couple of weeks and see what happens with the virus. And then we can slowly get back into our rhythm without the pressure of having the games in 90 days.”
Long had heard from Paralympic friends in Spain who were on complete lockdown and others in Germany who were shut out of their training pool for at least five weeks. So she’d accepted that an equitable run-up to the 2020 Games would be impossible.
“That’s why today, I’m allowing myself to just process it,” she said. “It’s been four years of training, so I feel like I’m allowed to have a day where we just say, ‘OK, let’s reset and figure out a way to get through this together.’ And then we’ll show up in Tokyo in 2021 and give it our all.”