And at her training base in Monte Gordo, Portugal, American triathlete Summer Rappaport struggles to maintain the protein-and-carbohydrate balance that’s key to peak performance because local grocery stores have been wiped out of fresh produce, eggs and meat.
“If it really came down to it, we could go to the bread-and-peanut butter diet,” Rappaport, 28, the first athlete to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic triathlon team, said in a telephone interview, “but it’s not optimum for training.”
These are just a few pages from the rapidly evolving playbook of would-be U.S. Olympians in a world transformed by the novel coronavirus pandemic four months before the 2020 Tokyo Olympic are scheduled to start.
For years, Olympic hopefuls have led highly regulated lives, gearing every aspect of their sleep, workouts and meals toward peaking for Tokyo. But as universities, private gyms and indoor pools have shuttered their doors in the interest of public safety, many of these elite athletes are scrambling for alternatives with no clear game plan.
Swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, who still train at Stanford despite having turned pro, were among the displaced. They ended up at nearby Menlo Circus Club, best known for its equestrian facilities, as guests of a member. The club has only a short-course pool, and the two Olympic champions were exploring other options by midweek. The immediate pressure is off, however, because an upcoming meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., was canceled this week, meaning they probably won’t compete again until May.
The latest blow affected nearly 200 of their peers, when the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced Tuesday it was essentially shutting down its two primary training sites in response to escalating health and safety concerns. The shutdown came just two days after U.S. Olympic officials restricted access to its training center in Colorado Springs.
On Tuesday, it went further, citing a directive from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) that all gyms, restaurants, bars and many other public places must close to slow the spread of the virus. Athletes got the news via a Team USA communication app informing them that the center’s pool, velodrome, gyms and strength and conditioning areas would be closed and not reopened for at least 30 days.
The closure scuttled Modi’s best hope of getting his training back on track after taking a red-eye from San Francisco to his parents’ home in New Jersey. He was among nearly a dozen displaced male gymnasts petitioning for the right to train at the Colorado Springs facility when the closure was announced.
Also displaced was former Oklahoma gymnast Colin Van Wicklen, who went on a nomadic odyssey in search of an alternate training home after learning the university was closing its gym. Van Wicklen and three other elite athletes had continued to train at the Sooners’ gym with Coach Mark Williams.
With no warning, they all had to scramble for alternatives. Van Wicklen reached out to his former club in Houston, whose owner said he could practice there. So Van Wicklen packed as if that might be his home base until the Olympic trials in June.
Minutes after arriving in Houston following the six-hour drive home, Van Wicklen received a text that the gym was closing. He turned to Instagram, asking for help finding an open gym in town. He trained at a different club Monday and Tuesday, but that facility closed, too.
So Van Wicklen drove through the night back to Norman, Okla., while his two huskies slept, arriving at 3 a.m. His current plan is to train with the other former Oklahoma gymnasts, including 2019 U.S. all-around silver medalist Yul Moldauer, at a local facility run by 1984 Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner. But even that, he said, will be “more of just doing as much as we can to stay loose and keep our body going.”
Gymnastics isn’t a sport you can do just anywhere, Van Wicklen noted. “If you're a basketball player, while it's not ideal, you can still shoot hoops in your front yard,” he said. “But there's no way to go to a park and find a set of [parallel bars].”
But an extended layoff is unfathomable. Apart from days off on Saturdays, Van Wicklen doesn’t think he has missed a day of training for two years.
“After three weeks of no gymnastics, all those injuries — the little mild injuries that you’ve been pushing through and kind of can deal with and keep at bay — they really blow up on you,” Van Wicklen said. “Your wrists swell. Your ankles stiff. Your shoulders hurt. And it makes it so difficult to come back.”
Equally disruptive for many Olympic hopefuls have been the cancellations of domestic and international competitions they had counted on to gauge their readiness, impress judges and, in some cases, qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
Phil Dalhausser, a three-time Olympic beach volleyball player, landed in Sydney on Saturday night for a FIVB World Tour event in Gold Coast with just that in mind. A 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Dalhausser and his partner, Nick Lucena, have yet to qualify for Tokyo.
About 90 minutes before he boarded a connecting flight to the Gold Coast, Dalhausser received the news on his phone: He had traveled around the world only to learn the tournament had been postponed because of the virus.
“I mean, it’s all just so crazy,” he said.
With the world seemingly coming undone, Dalhausser, 40, immediately booked a flight home to Orlando, worried he might not be able to get back otherwise.
Members of the U.S. women’s water polo team started 2020 with their competition calendar mapped out on an Excel sheet.
In late March, the defending Olympic champions were to travel to Japan for a “test” tournament at the site of the Tokyo Games. In April, the squad was to host a scrimmage with Canada, host a game against Australia and travel to Indianapolis for an internationally sanctioned tournament that included Australia, China, New Zealand and Japan.
All that is now canceled, and the team faces the prospect of entering the Olympics without having played a competitive game since late February.
But team captain Maggie Steffens, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, said the squad is repurposing the motto it set at the season’s outset — “Game by game, quarter by quarter, moment by moment” — to apply to each “new normal” dictated by the coronavirus.
“We had a few days that were really eerie; things kept getting canceled, and mentally and emotionally it was a really odd time,” said Steffens, 26. “Who knew what the next thing was? But this is our work, and it’s also our life. This is the dream we have. And that dream is what gets you through tough times.”
For many, the uncertainty is the biggest challenge. The “new normal” seems to shift daily, complicating efforts to remain fit and motivated for a competition that may or may not take place as scheduled.
Weightlifter Mattie Rogers, 24, said she has been working toward the summer of 2020 for the past six years, living and breathing the same goal each day. Four years ago, she just missed a spot on the U.S. team but returned to training immediately and reset her sights on Tokyo.
Now an American record holder, Rogers is all but assured of a spot on the 2020 U.S. team — if there is a 2020 Olympics.
“It’s hard to train for the Olympics when you don’t know when the Olympics are going to be,” Rogers said Wednesday after finishing her daily workout at her gym in Orlando. The gym was still open, but Rogers had no idea about Thursday and beyond.
“I feel like the days are numbered for that,” she said. “We’ll be lucky to make it through the week. And then after that, I don’t have a solid plan yet. Everything is day by day right now.”
She will figure out a way to work out at home if she must but can’t really say what she’s working toward. The final Olympic qualifying event, the Pan American championships, scheduled for next month in the Dominican Republic, was postponed indefinitely.
“It’s pretty much canceled everything,” she said. “We still don’t have a lot of information, I guess, because nobody knows what’s going on and we don’t know what any of this means. That’s the worst part: the uncertainty of everything.”
Dalhausser, the 2008 gold medal beach volleyball player seeking a spot on a fourth Olympic team, likened the state of confusion to “a mini-offseason.”
“Mentally, I’ve taken my foot off the gas pedal a little bit,” Dalhausser said. “There’s no answers, and we probably won’t get any for a while. It’s something I’ve got to figure out how to put the foot back on the pedal.”
For now, Modi, the former Stanford gymnast and 2019 U.S. high bar silver medalist, just wants to figure out how to get back in a gym.
“Gymnastics is a very, very finicky sport,” Modi said. “You take two days off, and you really feel like you’re losing your technical ability and the body awareness you need. So taking three, four weeks off is very difficult. It’s pretty bad. I’ll do my best to stay in shape at home, but you can only do so much. My level of routines are many, many times harder than anything I can do at home.”
At 24, Modi has eyed the 2020 Olympics as the capstone of his career. It’s an open question whether he can maintain his form throughout whatever delay lies ahead. It’s an even murkier question whether he can reclaim his form if the 2020 Games are delayed six months or pushed back a full year.
“This was intended to be my last go at making the Olympics,” Modi said. “If they get pushed back, depending how far, I don’t even know if I would still try to go. I have to come to terms with that.”
This week, veteran water polo coach and author Jack Bowen, an alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic team, offered 10 tips for athletes unable to compete or train because of coronavirus precautions. He cited physical and mental exercises, gave dietary tips and, above all, stressed the importance of outlook and appreciation.
Said Bowen, in a telephone interview: “By being forced to step away from your sport — something, by definition, none of these athletes have done for 10 years — you can come back rejuvenated if you really are intentional about it. You can say to yourself, ‘In 30, 60, 90 days, I’m going to come back with double the effort because this is what I really love.’”
For Rappaport, the triathlete who has clinched her spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team, the challenge of navigating the weeks and months ahead feels similar to transitioning from swimming in pools, as she did as an NCAA standout at Villanova, to swimming amid the open-water chaos of a triathlon start.
“You have to be prepared for all kinds of conditions and all kinds of courses,” Rappaport said, “so we as athletes are used to having to make adjustments. I don’t think any of us have ever made adjustments on this scale before. But I think we have all accepted it. It’s just what we’re going to have to do.”