Anastasia Pagonis competes in butterfly in Tokyo. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
The postponement of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games presented challenges the likes of which athletes, coaches and development and other team personnel had never before seen.
How do you get an athlete or a team ready to peak in five years when everything to that point was geared toward four?
Now, national governing bodies are facing a similar challenge, but in the opposite direction. In preparing for the Paris Games in 2024, they have just three years to do it instead of four.
“I think the shortened quad, kind of like the extended quad, is going to be a learning process for everyone,” said Nathan Manley, the high-performance director at U.S. Paralympics Swimming. “We haven’t had to face that challenge before.”
You can think of the effort of national governing bodies as a funnel, Manley said, and typically early in the quad you have a broader focus. As you work toward the Games you narrow in and try to focus your resources and opportunities toward those athletes with the best shot of making the team.
The first year of a typical quad is generally spent focusing on the athletes who didn’t compete in the recent Games, Manley said. Some of that happens naturally because many of the Paralympians dial back their training or take a break following the Games. But this broad focus is also necessary since the year prior the bulk of the resources were focused on those athletes who’d already qualified or who had the best chances of qualifying for the Games. So the first year of the quad becomes an important time to redistribute those resources back toward development.
“That’s when we tend to be looking at who are the next athletes we can help with whatever capabilities we have to take the next steps toward world championships, toward the Games,” Manley said. “There’s some sorting, too, that year, of what are the desires of the athletes who went to the last Games, what’s the retention going to be like, and how do we support the athletes who want to keep going. And those athletes have to sort things out, too, and sometimes it takes them a year to decide if they want to keep going or if they’re done.”
There’s also an evaluation of the broader picture in the wake of the Games as well, and Manley said that just prior to the national championships in December, U.S. Paralympics Swimming held a meeting with several stakeholders, including athletes, to discuss how to best focus their efforts moving forward.
One theme, he said, was a real desire on the part of the athletes to be more engaged in the promotion of the sport and building on the legacy and the ever-growing spotlight on Paralympic sports, especially as they start moving toward the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles in seven years.
“There’s been some positive recognition by the athletes that they have some responsibility-slash-opportunity in that space, and there’ve been some good things in terms of athlete marketing that will play into that as well,” he said.
There’s also genuine interest in engaging the growing group of people who have an interest in the sport, centering around coaches, sports medicine providers, sports psychologists, nutritionists and others.
Manley said that for the up-and-coming athletes whose goal was always to debut in 2024, the training plan shouldn’t be impacted greatly by the shortened quad. The clubs, high schools and colleges in the U.S. all work to develop those athletes, and their goals to make their first Parapan American Games team in 2023 as part of the preparation won’t have changed.
There could also be 2020 veterans who will choose to try for Paris, because going another three years is an easier ask of the body and mind than another four.
Knowing that all of the typical “year one” things would be happening in year two, and with the world championships looming, Manley said they knew they’d be pulling double-duty to keep things on track as best as possible. Although not ideal, it’s just the situation in which they find themselves with an astonishing number of pages already pulled from the calendar in the countdown to Paris 2024.
“I don’t know that you really can fast-forward to year two of the quad and miss some of those broader picture developmental things,” Manley said. “But at the same time, we have to function in reality, which is that we’re only about two years or so from the trials for Paris, which is really crazy to frame it that way.”