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Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team Adjusts to a New Normal

By Nick Hehemann, USA Triathlon | June 04, 2020, 7:03 p.m. (ET)

The typically lively campus grounds are quiet. No splashes of water in the pool or clamor of weights echoing through the main gym.

The audible intensity of training — like the dreams of international glory — have been put on pause. 

Like the rest of the world in the coronavirus era, life sounds and looks dramatically different at One Olympic Plaza in Colorado Springs.

That’s the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center — the training and, in some cases, literal home of the Toyota U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team.

“Pretty much the only thing that’s open is the dining hall. Basically, everything else is shut down,” Kyle Coon said via phone call in late April. He’s one of six members who make up the elite squad of paratriathletes based at the training center. “We have no access to the gym, the pool or our triathlon training room. We can go pick up our food at the dining hall, but that’s it.”

Colorado athletic facilities like the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center closed in mid-March following a directive from Gov. Jared Polis that ordered all gyms, casinos, theaters, bars and dine-in restaurants to close to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. The closure of the Training Center athletic facilities and dining hall left Coon and hundreds of other athletes without a place to train — and socialize.

Suddenly gone were the group workouts and shared laughs over breakfast in the cafeteria — a favorite routine for the close-knit group of six resident paratriathletes, four of whom live on the training center property.

“We’ll be there (at the table) for over an hour sometimes,” said Melissa Stockwell, a bronze medalist at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio and a member of the American sweep in the women’s PTS2 category. “We sit around and just make fun of each other. It’s the greatest. We laugh and have a lot of fun together. I miss them.”

For the athletes on the team —Allysa Seely, Hailey Danz, Howie Sanborn, Kendall Gretsch, Coon and Stockwell — these days of social distancing, group Zoom video calls, creative workouts and a new timeline for their Paralympic dreams is the “new normal.”

But the training continues.

Dreams Postponed

Seely — the gold medalist in the women’s PTS2 category at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio — was at her house when news broke that the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games would be postponed.

“Honestly, at that point, I didn’t have much of a reaction because it was expected,” Seely said, recognizing that the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees made the right decision.

“It was very clear that it was unsafe to go on as planned. Although it’s disheartening, I was glad that it gave everyone across the world the chance to really focus on the here and now and keep everybody safe and healthy.”

The IOC formally made its decision to push back the Games on March 24. Six days later, came the announcement of the new dates in 2021. For athletes who have been preparing for years for this summer, the news — although understood — was heartbreaking.

Given the state of the world, though, as well as the added challenges of finding an open pool or having any sense of normalcy in training, there was also another feeling.

“It took a little bit of a weight off,” admitted Danz, who earned the silver in the women’s PTS2 category at the Paralympic Games in 2016. “I was happy that they were able to prioritize health and safety over everything else.

“We weren’t sure if Tokyo was still going to go on. People were willing to look into any loopholes in the system to keep on training so we could be as fit as possible in August. But, once (the news) came out, we didn’t need to worry about that. We could pause and take a breath.”

For elite endurance athletes, timetables are everything. While training continues year-round, the purpose and intensity of these workouts — as well as an athlete’s nutrition regimen — can look much different between the “offseason” and the heart of the race calendar.

Likewise, even on such a close team, the athletes are inherently unique in their stage of life and their athletic career.

Take Gretsch, for example. As a wheelchair competitor, she’s relatively new to the paratriathlon scene but is a true world-class multisport athlete. A two-time Paralympic gold medalist in Nordic skiing in 2018, Gretsch also has her eyes set on the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, which would now take place just about seven months after the scheduled Paralympic triathlon events in Tokyo.

“It does complicate things a little bit,” Gretsch said. “I’m trying to figure out how that’s going to look with qualification. It’s going to be busy.”

Then there’s Stockwell, the only person on the team who’s juggling training with the responsibility of being a mom.

“I’m 40 years old, and I have two young kids — a year is a long time,” she said. “I know (the Paralympic Games in 2021) are going to be worth the wait, but there was a brief thought of, ‘Do I have that in me for another year?’ It was a fleeting thought because I moved my family here to Colorado Springs to chase this dream, and I’m going to see it through.”

Added Challenges in Training

Social distancing guidelines, Colorado’s stay-at-home order and closure of gyms and pools required the athletes to find creative ways to train. 

While solo runs and bike rides are permitted, these options aren’t always feasible for each athlete. As a blind athlete, Coon races while tethered closely to his guide — something he can’t do safely following social distancing guidelines.

“We’re typically elbow to elbow. There’s times when you’re blowing snot on each other, you’re spitting on each other — it goes against all the social distancing protocols,” Coon laughed.

Without access to a treadmill, he and the other athletes have focused on individual strength work, cycling (sometimes on a personal Wahoo KICKR bike trainer) and resistance bands to mimic swim motion.

It’s not the same, but then again, nothing is. They just have to adapt. 

Adapting to Social Isolation

A world in quarantine can feel lonely.

In a typical pre-coronavirus week, the athletes were almost always together — even beyond team workouts and meals.

Coon recalls a night that a heated game of dice — Farkle, to be specific — broke out on campus.

“Allysa kept getting zero points. Every time she rolled,” he laughed. “We spend a lot of time together and laugh a lot together. It’s something I definitely miss.”

Now, those friendly competitions take place over weekly Zoom hangouts.

“Last week, we went through a deck of cards,” Gretsch said. “Our coach, Derick Williamson, drew a card for every person until we got through the deck. Depending on the card, you had to do that many pushups. It was fun.”

Being social through technology helps, but those in-person hangouts we all, admittedly, take for granted will be that much more special when things return to normal.

New Perspective and Unity

When looking toward the team’s eventual reunion, Stockwell said they’ll all be “grinning from ear to ear.”

So, you can imagine the excitement at the thought of the Paralympic Games finally taking place in 2021.

“The world is facing this challenge right now that impacts everyone,” Danz said. “Tokyo 2021 is going to be an amazing celebration of everything we’ve overcome together.

“The struggle is what makes all the good things worth it. When the world comes together, knowing what we’ve overcome, it’s going to mean so much more to celebrate that.”

It will be an international community united like never before — the new normal.

 

This story first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine. At the time of writing, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games had just been postponed and many facilities at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs remained closed.