Yul Moldauer competes on the rings during the Senior Men's competition of the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on August 08, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
COVID tests with breakfast. Security guards at the elevators making sure you don’t leave the floor of your hotel. Nothing about this trip is usual, but U.S. gymnasts in Tokyo for Sunday’s Friendship and Solidarity Competition are nonetheless very pleased to be there.
“I would have never thought that I would get this opportunity, and so I’m just grateful, and just excited for everything,” said Shilese Jones, one of the six-member delegation of U.S. Olympic hopefuls, including 2019 world championships team members Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus and newcomers Paul Juda, Sophia Butler and eMjae Frazier, who made the 11-hour flight to Tokyo earlier this week.
The Friendship and Solidarity meet is the first international competition in any sport in Japan since COVID-19 took hold of the planet in March. Top gymnasts from Japan, China and Russia will also participate in the unique one-day event, organized by the International Gymnastics Federation.
For Jones, after a twilight zone year that included three and a half months away from training due to lockdowns, with no U.S. championships and no national team camps since January, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“It’s kind of a stepping stone for me,” said Jones, an alternate to the 2019 Pan American Games squad. “I’m kind of like an outsider when it comes to picking for competitions and things like that, and so I’m just more excited to compete and just to show that off, that I’m here, I’m still capable of competing.”
After missing the world team selection camp last fall, 18-year-old Jones came into 2020 “super prepared,” and was selected to compete at the prestigious City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy before it was cancelled. A strict lockdown in Ohio and concerns about her father’s health kept her away from the gym for months.
“That was just crazy,” she said. “When we got back, I just felt like I had to start over on everything. It wasn’t too bad, it was mostly just like strength-wise. We did strength for about two months — we basically didn’t even touch the equipment. It was just like, get in, do conditioning, do shaping and get out.
“And so that was a process for a long time, and just like kind of getting my mental right. Each day I was like, why don’t I have my skills? Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do that? And it was
just about trusting my coach and trusting the process and just taking it day by day with what my body could handle and just hoping that I would get all my skills back and further where I basically was at before.”
An Event Unlike Any Other
By design the Friendship and Solidarity competition is meant to encourage — yup — friendship and solidarity in uncertain times. Rather than representing themselves or their nations, the 30 competitors will be divided into two teams, Team Friendship and Team Solidarity. The top three scores per apparatus posted will count toward each team total, and no individual awards will be given out.
At this competition, the greater pressure is on the organizers. As Tokyo prepares to host next summer’s postponed Olympics in a still COVID-soaked world, many see Friendship and Solidarity as a test run for future events.
Things hit a speed bump when Japan’s headliner, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kohei Uchimura, tested positive for COVID on Oct. 28, threatening the entire Japanese delegation’s participation. Subsequent tests at three different hospitals came back negative, and Uchimura’s result was declared a false positive.
Still, some are ostensibly nervous. The Chinese delegation, arriving at Tokyo’s Narita Airport Friday, was photographed in full-body PPE, which one newspaper described as making them look “more like hazmat workers than world-class athletes.”
Restrictions are tight, and precautions plentiful. Each U.S. team member had to quarantine and produce multiple negative COVID tests to be able to board the chartered flight to Japan this week. When their plane arrived at Haneda Airport, they were whisked off to a waiting area and tested once more before boarding a special transport to take them into the city.
At their hotel, security guards stand by elevators to make sure nobody leaves except to go to training. Breakfast on the first day included “a COVID test on the side,” Wiskus reported.
Despite a relatively short preparation time and the long flight to Japan, the University of Minnesota senior jumped at the opportunity to compete. 2020 has been especially rough on him: when he and his Minnesota teammates returned to campus this fall, one tested positive for the virus, and Wiskus was forced to quarantine for two weeks.
Then on Sept. 10, Minnesota announced it would be cutting men’s gymnastics and two other sports after the season. With 15 credits left to earn his degree in business marketing, Wiskus plans to move to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in about a month and finish his last classes virtually.
“It’s just kind of been one thing after another, and I’ve had to talk with sports psych a lot,” Wiskus said. “One thing we’ve discussed is being more of a palm tree — and what I mean by that is normally you try to be as stiff and rigid as you can and just kind of like go through things and
push through things, but if you put an oak tree in a hurricane, it just breaks, right? So you have to be a palm tree and go with the flow and be willing to work with the intense winds and the storm. That’s kind of one thing I’ve been trying to implement: take things for what they are and take each opportunity for what it is and just be grateful for everything you get and go with the flow, really.”
“We’ll Hopefully Wave At Them From A Distance”
It may not be how the gymnasts expected to get to Tokyo in 2020, but there have been a few perks, like sitting in business class on their chartered flight, where the seats reclined all the way back and the screens were 27 inches.
Both Jones and Wiskus said they felt safe in Tokyo.
“Once we got here my mind was put at ease. Everything was very thorough and very safe. They’ve done a good job,” Wiskus said. “The hospitality’s second-to-none. They take gymnastics seriously over here, so you definitely feel like a big deal everywhere you go.”
Both were looking forward to Friday’s training session at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, where gymnasts from all four nations would be together for the first time.
“We’ll get to mingle with them, and hopefully wave at each other from a distance,” Wiskus said.
Pandemic or no, the Olympic spirit virtues of friendship and solidarity are alive and well.