When the coronavirus brought the Olympic sports world to a grinding halt this past March, the top winter sports athletes had mostly finished competing for the year. A handful of events were canceled, but the early days of the pandemic largely felt like a bullet dodged for the skiers, skaters and snowboarders training for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
But weeks and months passed, and it soon became clear the virus that ruined spring and summer still would be raging as the temperatures dropped. And now, just 13 months out from the Beijing Games, Olympic officials are monitoring the escalating coronavirus numbers here and in Europe. On Monday, this week’s Alpine skiing World Cup event in Switzerland was canceled because of the worsening conditions in the region.
“It’s all uncharted waters,” said Jeff Plush, chief executive of USA Curling. “We’re just trying to navigate it all the best we can. What we know today we know can change next week.”
While much of the Olympic world’s focus has been on the postponed Tokyo Games and challenges faced by summer sport athletes, their cold-weather counterparts saw much of the fall and early-winter competition schedules wrecked. Some Olympic hopefuls have been competing in recent weeks, but many others have been waiting — training alone or with their teammates, itching to start testing their mettle with the Winter Games just around the corner.
The top American curlers haven’t slid a stone that counted since March. Bobsledders and skeleton athletes similarly had a 10-month layoff before finally returning to action last week. Short-track speedskaters have seen their international calendar wiped clean through February. And figure skaters will enter this week’s national championship with just one event — in October — under their belts.
When the coronavirus rapidly shuttered the sports world, officials with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) rushed to get nearly 90 people home from Europe in less than a day. And while they knew they were months from their next live event, most were quick to realize the virus wasn’t only jeopardizing the Olympic dreams of Tokyo hopefuls.
“We weren’t completely unscathed,” said Troy Taylor, USSA’s high-performance director, “but compared to the summer sports, we were pretty lucky.”
Even while event schedules remained either in flux or in doubt, winter sports organizers had some decisions to make. With gyms and training facilities closed in the spring, they had to help support their athletes’ offseason training. For sliding sports, where speed and power are key, that meant athletes working out in basements or even pushing cars outside. Officials with USA Bobsled/Skeleton, meanwhile, got creative. They typically use the summer months to recruit new athletes. Rather than hosting in-person tryouts, the organization staged a virtual combine, soliciting videos and reaching out to potential competitors.
“We’ve always been working through Plans A, B, C and D,” said Aron McGuire, chief executive of USA Bobsled/Skeleton. “We always had the sense that this season was going to be impacted in some way, so we were putting several plans together.”
And while these athletes compete in cold, wintry conditions, summer is a key training time for many of the snow sports. Ski and snowboard teams typically send 100 or so people to the Southern Hemisphere — Chile, Argentina, New Zealand — to take advantage of fresh snow. But USSA officials quickly realized traveling abroad wasn’t prudent and had to sort out domestic options. They ended up at Timberline Lodge ski area at Mt. Hood in Oregon, the only place in the country that offers year-round skiing.
“We were able to accomplish a lot of stuff. We were able to prioritize off-snow conditioning, rehabbing,” said Taylor, who works with athletes competing in seven snow sports. “It was still less than we’d be able to achieve in a normal summer. But everyone had a compromised summer compared to what we’d ideally do.”
US Speedskating hosted one event for long-track skaters in October, but the International Skating Union scrapped its fall World Cup races and then US Speedskating canceled its national championships last month after a coronavirus outbreak among athletes. Two North American-based bobsled and skeleton events moved overseas, and the U.S. team opted to skip the four European events at the end of last year, preferring athletes minimize travel and time on the road.
The figure skating calendar also was shuffled, and top U.S. skaters have competed just once — at the Skate America event in October. The national championships get underway this week and were relocated from San Jose to Las Vegas. The event will take place in a bubble environment with no spectators. The world championships are still slated for March in Stockholm.
As infection numbers grow, most winter sports that have resumed their competitive schedules have done so cautiously. Sports officials have created strict protocols that provide guidance for American athletes both in and out of competition, and many sports — such as the World Cup biathlon races in Europe — are being contested with no fans in attendance.
Taylor estimates that 80 percent of the U.S. ski and snowboard teams have been able to compete at least once thus far.
“From that side, we feel good,” he said. “It’s all relative. We’d love there to be more competitions. But in the scenario we’re in, we’re thankful for the opportunities we are getting.”
Other winter athletes are in a holding pattern. In non-pandemic times, the curling calendar would have kicked into gear back in September. But the fall events were lost, and the national championships pushed to May. Many curling centers in the country still haven’t opened to the public, and the U.S. athletes had to get special exemptions to resume their training. The world championships are the next scheduled event on the calendar — late March in Switzerland for the women and early April in Calgary for the men.
“You just kind of compete against yourselves, against your own teams,” Plush said. “It’s not nothing. It’s good. But it’s not the same. You can’t replicate the tension that comes with something actually being on the line.”
The shuffling impacts athletes’ preparedness but also affects Olympic qualifying. Several sports rely on world rankings and an accumulation of points earned at different events to determine who makes the national team. Fewer events could mean fewer opportunities to earn a spot in Beijing.
“The hope is to be able to shift and push back events to later in the season and still allow for a significant amount of competition to take place,” said Jeremy Forster, USSA’s director of snowboarding and freeskiing.
The U.S. luge athletes skipped the European events this past fall but rejoined the World Cup circuit this month in Germany. The tour is competing without spectators, using charter flights to travel to events and requiring weekly tests. Similarly, many freestyle skiers and snowboarders are in Europe right now and have started competing, but they also are looking forward to the X Games later this month in Aspen, Colo., which will be closed to the public for the first time.
“These are some of the most adaptable athletes in any sport — how they compete, the way they compete, the creativity,” Forster said. “This certainly is going to put that to the test, but I’ve been so impressed by what I’ve seen from them since this all started.”
Taylor says USSA officials are acutely aware that athletes might feel especially isolated this season — living far from home without the option of socializing as much with teammates and coaches. They have a sports psychologist available for virtual sessions and have been organizing larger Zoom meetings as well, including a recent group discussion on “The Weight of Gold,” the HBO documentary that explores the mental health challenges many Olympians face.
While some events require or offer coronavirus testing, U.S. Olympic organizers know many of the biggest risks for those competing abroad can be found away from the competition venue. Athletes are urged to socialize indoors only with roommates and to maintain a safe distance from teammates and coaches outdoors. Taylor says USSA has conducted 5,000 coronavirus tests thus far and returned fewer than 25 positive cases. The vast majority, he said, stemmed from home situations, not from athletes competing on the road.
Mental conditioning has been a key component of training for several sports, especially in the absence of live competition. Plush says American curlers have leaned on a variety of exercises and psychology tools to work on mental sharpness and visualization. One hope is that the adversity and flexibility prompted by the pandemic yield dividends when the athletes find themselves under the bright Olympic lights.
“No one wants to go through this,” Plush said, “but I think they’ll be better for having gone through it. Maybe the things they thought stressed them out before don’t feel as impactful down the road.”