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“We Are Great At Overcoming Adversity”: Team USA Athletes Share Perspectives On Tokyo Postponement

By Karen Rosen | March 25, 2020, 2:44 p.m. (ET)

 

On your marks, get set, pause!

After weeks of speculation about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, the postponement announcement Tuesday provided a sense of clarity for athletes.

“News is better than no news,” said Alexander Massialas, a 2016 Olympic silver and bronze medalist in fencing. “At least we can figure out what our plan is now that we have some certainty. Obviously, the uncertainty sometimes is the killer.”

Many athletes across the globe have not been able to train as countries practice social distancing and shut down training facilities in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

While some Team USA athletes were disappointed by the thought of the Games now moving to 2021, they could see the bigger picture.

“It was heartbreaking, because I waited another four years for this opportunity,” said boxer Rahim Gonzales, who missed making the Olympic team in 2016. “But at the same time I feel like this was a blessing and a beautiful thing, because athletes like myself and others put aside our dreams. We’re really saving lives because if the Olympics did go on people could possibly get the virus.”

However, Allysa Seely, the 2016 paratriathlon gold medalist, said postponement shatters the plans athletes have had for a quadrennium.

“I think it’s devastating for a lot of people,” she said. “Three and a half years of work has gone into this. We’ve already started the qualification process. Although this is definitely the right decision on so many levels for the health of the world and all of the athletes, spectators, officials, from an anti-doping control perspective, preparation perspective it’s still really tough to have such a major event occur just months before the Games.”

Olympic gold and silver medalist hurdler Dawn Harper Nelson believes that when the Games are held they will mean “so much more than we ever imagined.”

“I feel like Tokyo 2020 now turning into 2021 is going to symbolize that the world has overcome this pandemic and everyone is back to health,” said Harper Nelson, the 2008 and 2012 medalist who came out of retirement last year after having a baby. “We’re here to celebrate so much more than just winning. It’s almost like the world winning.”

Here are the stories of seven Olympic and Paralympic athletes whose 2020 vision is now being reset to 2021.

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Maddie Musselman, Water Polo

After taking her senior year off from UCLA to train for the Olympics with the national water polo team, Musselman, 21, saw her teammates’ college season end abruptly due to the pandemic.

She worried the same thing might happen to the Games.

“I think that would have crushed a lot of people from all over the world, people who qualified, and people who haven’t gotten the chance to do that yet,” said Musselman, who won a gold medal with Team USA at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and has won three straight world championships golds.

Team USA, the most dominant women’s water polo of this era, qualified for Tokyo last June and has been training together since. The team members were supposed to be named in May, but Musselman said, “obviously that’s going to wait until we get back together again and closer to the Olympics.”

She said the uncertainty has been mentally exhausting.

“As athletes we’re huge planners and organizers and we like to know what’s going on,” Musselman said. “We’ve been training as hard as we can, the men’s and women’s water polo teams, since June. Obviously, it’s a lot of physical and mental effort to be able to do that, and to now know it’s another year away.”

She said she expects the athletes to handle this new challenge with grace.

“We are great at overcoming adversity; that’s what we play for,” Musselman said. “Our world has been a crazy place and we need to make sure we’re doing our responsibility first for the world before we do it for our sport.”

The last time the 17 national team members played together was a scrimmage on March 6 at their training facility near Long Beach, California.

The next week they trained in groups of five to follow social distancing protocol, then were sent home.

After the community pool closed last Wednesday, Musselman has been trying to maintain her fitness in her backyard pool, but it’s too small for water polo or swimming. it does have a wall.

“I’ve been throwing the ball against the wall, but it’s not the same as playing with your teammates,” she said.

The water polo team has been staying connected through almost daily team meetings on Zoom.

“I can see mostly every single person on our team grinding it out until the next summer,” Musselman said, “but I can’t say that for certain.

“Everyone’s dream is to still make this team.”


Noah Lyles, Track and Field

After winning the 200-meter world title last year, Lyles, 22, was expected to be one of the stars in Tokyo.

Now he can’t train like an elite athlete, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

With his track closed due to restrictions on gatherings, Lyles has been training in a park in central Florida in a group of six athletes, he explained Tuesday on a video conference with reporters.

“We can’t really sprint because we’re in grass,” he said.

And they can’t run more than 300 meters on the trail, which is hilly in the middle.

“You’re not going to be going all out on this trail,” Lyles said, “especially if you have people walking dogs and stuff like that.”

But he added, “It’s a little bit of something just to not go a little crazy.”

Lyles, who plans to double in the 100 and 200, said he had been “jittery and anxious” watching the news about the fate of the Tokyo Games.

“It was a little relief to see that the Olympics has decided to postpone it, because my first concern was that everybody would be healthy and everybody would have a fair place to actually compete,” he said.

Lyles said the delay meant the IOC and World Athletics were “trying to keep everybody in good health and good spirits” and it “made me feel good about my sport.”

He also said he was glad the international track and field federation said it was open to working with the IOC on moving the dates of its own world championships in 2021 in Eugene, Oregon, to accommodate the Olympic Games.

“It’s nothing that we can’t get through,” Lyles said. “It’s just taking everything every step one day at a time. Figuring out how we’re going to get ready for the Olympics next year is our biggest plan, but we still want to maintain fitness and we still want to be able to have some type of season.

“Just because the Olympics is gone doesn’t mean I don’t want to run. My first love is running, so I want to do that.”

In the meantime, he’s doubling down on his video games, particularly Overwatch and Dead by Daylight (“one of the most stressful games I’ve ever played”) and working on a song. He plans to release an EP in a few months.

Lyles has risk factors – allergies and asthma – so he has been keeping a close eye on his diet and overall health and washing his hands constantly to avoid getting sick.

“I did have the swine flu back in the day (2009),” he said. “I know my body is susceptible to catching it maybe easier than others. That’s why I have to work even harder.”

He said that looking back over the history of the Olympic Games, “You see that it’s usually war that has stopped the Olympics from happening. Seeing a virus come and seeing it was affecting everybody really puts it in perspective that we’re all human and we’re all dealing with the same thing.”


Allysa Seely, Paratriathlon

Seely, the gold medalist in paratriathlon in 2016 and a medal favorite in Tokyo said there are still many questions to be answered.

“A small piece of uncertainty has gone away with the announcement of the postponement, but there’s still so much uncertainty left,” she said. “First of all, when the Games are going to be, how qualifications are going to look, are we going to get to compete at all this season? There’s still a lot, as athletes, going through our minds. We expect those answers within the next four weeks like the IOC and IPC promised.”

Seely, 31, said for the rest of this year she’s trying to keep her fitness by doing activities at home and outdoors while respecting the social distancing rules and regulations.

“Hopefully I’ll be ready to pivot and compete whenever we get the word that it’s safe to do so,” said Seely, who was on the club triathlon team at ASU. “So right now we’re kind of just in a holding pattern is the best way to describe it.”

Seely is doing a modified strength program in her backyard with the help of whatever is lying around. She used sand to fill up some buckets and has lifted bricks. Even a large potted plant helps her do squats.

“I’m sure that looks pretty entertaining, but it got the job done,” Seely said.

She has a bike trainer at home and is able to run outdoors in Colorado, but has not been able to find water in which to train for the swimming portion.

Seely, who has won every event but two in this quadrennium – she was second in those – had just three months remaining in the international qualification process for Tokyo. She was ready to compete in one of the major Team USA selection events on March 14 when the competition was cancelled.

“We’d done a lot of preparation, emotionally and physically, and I think we were all ready,” Seely said, “but at the same time, I think every organization had made the right call to postpone, cancel, delay events to make sure health and safety come first.”

She said she and her coach had a talk Tuesday morning in which they adapted to the new schedule.

“I’m confident that in the extra time I’ll continue to prepare and I’ll continue to be my best,” she said. “So we’re just refocusing and adjusting to the changes. My goal hasn’t changed. My goal for Tokyo 2021 is still to defend that gold medal from Rio.”


Olivia Smoliga, Swimming

Smoliga, a 2016 Olympic relay gold medalist, said it was reassuring that the Games were postponed and not cancelled.

“Those two words floated around for weeks,” she said. “They’d never postponed an Olympics, but they’d cancelled an Olympics in the past, so cancellation seemed like a more realistic option.”

Smoliga, 25, said she felt an “over-arching stress” waiting to find out what would happen.

“I’m happy with myself,” she said, “that I’ve been trying to go with the flow as much as possible with all these events happening and controlling all that I can control, which is my emotions and how I react to it. Knowing that there’s going to be an Olympics in the future that I can try out for again settles my emotions.

Smoliga said not only is it just another year, but that “It’s just another year to get better. Maybe I’m feeling like that right now because it’s so fresh and the news just came. I wonder what I’ll feel like when July comes around when the Games are supposed to be. But for right now, I’m just thankful that I’m healthy, my friends are healthy, my teammates are healthy so we can just keep going.”

The three-time NCAA champion graduated from the University of Georgia in 2017 and continues to train there. Although Georgia closed its pool, Smoliga and her teammates have been able to continue their training at pools in the Atlanta area. She knows elite swimmers in Indiana and California who aren’t so lucky.

Before they dove in at practice Monday, coach Jack Bauerle told Smoliga and the other swimmers that the Games would probably be postponed.

“Everyone was looking at each other, the mood was low,” Smoliga said. “’What’s the point of being here?’ But then I was thinking to myself, ‘I really like swimming.’ I like being in the water. if I get a chance to, I don’t mind being in the water and using that as an outlet or a source of therapy.”

Bauerle gave the swimmers the option to skip the workout Tuesday – and Smoliga did.

“I really haven’t taken a day off until today,” she said. “Jack was like, ‘If you need to take a day or a few days to reset mentally, I totally understand. There’s obviously no pressure now.’”

After winning two gold medals and a bronze at the 2019 world championships, Smoliga went on vacation to Mexico with her family.

When she returned to Athens, Smoliga opened her iPad calendar and wrote down all the significant dates for 2020: pro meets, the high altitude camp – where she should be right now – the days she would swim the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles and the 100 backstroke at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming and even, with an asterisk, the Olympic Games in July and August.

Smoliga hasn’t deleted all of the dates. “No point to it,” she said. “You just move it forward a year.”


Rahim Gonzales, Boxing

Gonzales didn’t exactly welcome the news of the postponement, but he quickly gave himself an attitude adjustment.

“At first, my feelings were hurt,” he said. “I was crying a little bit, shedding little tears, but as long as I know the Olympics are going on, I was, OK, cool, it’s a little postponed.

“At this point, it’s a minor setback to a major comeback. Right now I’m not really worried about anything. I feel like this gives me more time to get my skills better, to get stronger, to mature even more, so come 2021 I feel like I get more time.”

Gonzales, 23, emerged from the grueling USA Boxing trials process to become the representative at 81 kg. He expected to be in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this week getting ready for the continental qualifier that would allow him to finally punch his ticket to Tokyo.

“We were training hard, getting up at 5:30 in the morning, doing four workouts a day, and then all of a sudden they told us the bad news, saying the Argentina tournament was suspended,” he said. “They said, ‘You guys just keep training, keep on staying focused,’ and then a couple of days later, they said, ‘There will be no Argentina.’”

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, closed to all except resident athletes, and Gonzales had to go home to Las Vegas. He said the current plan is to return on May 1.

However, one silver lining is Gonzales said he and his teammates were told in a team meeting Tuesday that they will keep their spot and do not have to go through another Olympic trials.

“I was worried about that – I gotta put myself through hell again?” he said. “This is a kind of relief, this gives me more time to get my style ready for the international world.”

Gonzales has been doing sprints in a park near his home and hitting mitts with his father, “so I’m back at it,” he said.

While Gonzales felt like 2020 was going to be his year, he doesn’t mind 2021 because he said, “I like odd numbers.”

He said he has heard the Olympic qualifiers might be held in January or February.

“The athletes are really coming together and really showing that we do care,” Gonzales said. “It’s not all about sports or the Olympics or getting the gold medal. Right now it’s about family and helping others. And showing that we’re leaders in the world as well.”


Dawn Harper Nelson, Track and Field

When the International Olympic Committee opened the door for postponement Monday, Harper Nelson sat down with her husband Alonzo to talk things over. She knew if the Olympics spilled over into 2021, they’d have to put off their plans to have a second child.

“I asked him, I want to know your honest opinion, don’t think about me and my dream, but how do you feel?” said Harper Nelson.

Her husband replied that he thought things were going well as they juggled her training with family life.

Harper Nelson, who will turn 36 in May, also knows that her age is a factor.

“As long as my body is telling me I can do it, we’re going to go for it,” she said.

She called the postponement “monumental and groundbreaking,” and appreciated that the IOC made the move after saying Sunday that it would make a decision in the next four weeks.

“That is not a way for us to train, not knowing whether to peak for Olympic trials and for the Olympics,” Harper Nelson said.

“Now it’s almost like, ‘OK, I have to keep my excitement and a little bit of anxiety for a whole other year.”

She has been able to train at a community track near her home in Illinois. She’s the only one there.

“I saw athletes saying they have no access to anything athletic, equipment or a track,” Harper Nelson said. “It was really eye opening to me. The globe is really being affected. Now I don’t have access to my weight room, so I’ll be in the house, lifting my couch, and (toddler daughter) Harper will continue to be my medicine ball.”

She hopes she and the rest of the world will be able to resume normal training soon and have a Diamond League track season.

“I know a lot of athletes really have taken a step back and really looked at humanity,” Harper Nelson said. “Now we’re realizing if you say you love your fellow man, then you want everybody to go to the Olympics and you want to compete against the best in the world.

“I want everyone to show up and say, ‘My coach and I put together a program and we did everything we wanted to do.’ That’s what the Olympic Movement is about, coming together to represent your country on a level playing field and just doing your best. If that’s what 2021 will give us, that’s what we’ll take.”


Alexander Massialas, Fencing

As one of the Team USA athletes who had already qualified for Tokyo, Massialas has a different perspective on the postponement than athletes who had yet to secure their spot at the Games.

“Now I get to wait until they make a decision on whether we have to qualify again,” said Massialas, for whom this would be his third Olympics. “It is too early to say at this point. I personally think that we put in the work and it would feel really bad to throw away all of last year’s work, because we fenced well, we rose to the occasion when we needed to, and deserve to go to Tokyo whether it be this year or the next.”

With San Francisco abiding by a “shelter in place” edict the last week or so, Massialas, 25, hasn’t been able to go to his fencing club or the gym.

He’s done some body weight workouts in his backyard, some sprints up a nearby hill and walks around the neighborhood to support local businesses.

“Even though these weren’t the same workouts I could do in the gym,” Massialas said, “I’m trying to do stuff to keep myself in shape, keep myself ready, so when I can fence again, I’m just as fast and just as good as I was before.”

His fencing bag is sitting in his apartment. “I see it every day,” he said. “Sometimes if I get really bored I pull out my foil and do some handwork stuff.”

He’s also working on his dexterity by playing “way too many video games” and getting back into guitar.

Massialas, a Stanford alum, qualified for the Games after a world cup in Cairo in February. People were still congratulating him in Anaheim, California, in March, when he arrived to compete in an event which was ultimately canceled.

He was relieved the Olympic Games will go on, even if they are postponed. “Obviously, we don’t want to see the Olympics be cancelled,” he said. “This is something I grew up with as a dream. I personally didn’t think a pandemic of this sort would ever occur in my lifetime, but when extraordinary things happen, extraordinary measures have to be taken. I’m glad that the IOC has made the decision and it was a decision that put first the health of not just the athletes or the organizers, but all the spectators who would want to come and watch it as well. At the end of the day, health is definitely more important than sport.”

Related Athletes

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Alexander Massialas

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Allysa Seely

Triathlon
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Maddie Musselman

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Noah Lyles

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Olivia Smoliga

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Dawn Harper-Nelson

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Rahim Gonzales