Olympics

How Olympians carry on in the face of Covid-19

Update: Since this article was published the International Olympic Committee has announced the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.

As New Zealanders go into lockdown, our athletes aiming for the Tokyo Olympics must figure out how to continue training towards the Games in July. But the goalposts they’re aiming for could now be on the move.

The International Olympic Committee have finally told athletes they will consider postponing the Games, with their health and safety paramount during the coronavirus pandemic. Cancellation, they say, “isn’t on the agenda”.

That news wasn’t enough for some Olympic nations - Canada withdrawing their team from this winter's Olympics, and Australia telling their athletes to expect the Games to be delayed by a year.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee is urging the IOC to speed up their verdict. The IOC promise to make the call in four weeks’ time.

In the meantime, LockerRoom spoke to six athletes doing their best to work towards a July 24 Olympic start, while in isolation.

SARAH WALKER

Sarah Walker says she’s been here before. Mentally, at least.

“All of the injuries in my career have prepared me for this,” the 2012 Olympic BMX silver medallist says. “There’s been so many times where I’m not able to train properly, when I don’t know when I’m going to compete again.

“And this time it’s good, because I’m not injured.”

Walker hasn't been herself though, and has been in self-imposed isolation for the last fortnight. Suffering from a common cold, she stayed away from the gym, physio and massage therapist.

“I could still ride my bike at the BMX track because it’s a wide-open space. There’s been only three of us max at the track and we keep our distance,” she says.

“I have gym exercises I can do at home. It’s weird, but I feel prepared for the adversity that we’re facing because of my history.”

Walker, who’s also a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, knows she’s being optimistic, but she sees a light at the end of the tunnel.  

“Two weeks ago, I was completely supportive of the Olympics going ahead [in July], because I think it’s really important right now. Everyone is stressed and anxious with the uncertainty, but the Olympics always unites the whole world and brings inspiration and brings unique moments, every single time,” she says.

“Now I feel it would be really cool to have the Olympics at the end of the tunnel we’re in… because it would be such an amazing display of human resilience to get through a global disaster. But we just don’t know how long the tunnel is.”

Walker was preparing for an Athletes’ Commission group phone call in the early hours of this morning, to discuss athlete feedback around the world to the announcement, “so the IOC can take that into consideration when they make their decision”.

New Zealand was on the verge of qualifying two BMX women for Tokyo, but with the qualifiers called off, it sits at one Kiwi rider – and who has yet to be determined. Walker, Rebecca Petch and teen Jessie Smith (see below) are all in the running. 

Nacra 17 sailor Erica Dawson has her first shot at an Olympics in Tokyo. Photo: Suellen Hurling/Live Sail Die. 

ERICA DAWSON

First-time Olympian sailor Erica Dawson isn’t sure when after this Wednesday she will be on a boat again.

She was supposed to be training and racing in Europe with her Nacra 17 crewmate Micah Wilkinson right now, until regattas were put on ice. “We’re very lucky the container with our boats for Tokyo hadn’t left,” she says - which meant they could keep training on Auckland’s harbour.

They’d figured out a way of social distancing. “Micah and I are close on the boat but we’re not facing each other a lot of the time,” she says. “We didn’t do much socialising, and we keep in touch with the rest of the team with chats on Zoom.”

Now that’s all changing. “We don’t think we’ll be able to sail with each other when we go into full lockdown. I don’t know if we can even drive to the boat!” Dawson says.

But if she can't be on the water, she’s determined to get “super fit” working out at home.

“It’s a relief they aren’t going to cancel the Olympics,” she says. “And it’s good to know what they’re thinking right now. It’s given us a little more certainty.”

Shiray Kaka has come back from a cruel series of injuries to be in line for the Black Ferns Sevens Olympic team. Photo: Getty Images.

SHIRAY KAKA

Black Ferns Sevens winger Shiray Kaka has a strong feeling the Olympics will go ahead and everything will run smoothly.

“That might just be me and my positivity, but I’m still training like it’s happening until I hear otherwise,” says Kaka, a travelling reserve at the 2016 Rio Games.

Not everyone in the team feels as optimistic as Kaka, but the mixed feelings are understandable - given the time and effort the Sevens Sisters have put into winning gold in Tokyo.

Kaka says the support the players have going through this period will make it a little easier.

“We’re really looked after by all our medical and management staff. They’re all trying to stay pretty positive as well and we’re quite honest as a group around how we feel as a team.”

The team has been following self-isolation rules lately, with no contact and no ball skill sessions in their training.

“We’re not allowed into our high performance gym, but we can train with other teammates as long as it’s less than five people and we keep the required distance when running,” Kaka says.

It hasn’t been all bad though. Kaka has enjoyed training at home in her own gym and having her beloved dogs run next to her on the 8ha farm she shares with her husband, former All Black Sevens star Gillies Kaka.

“It’s hard for me to get bored - there’s always stuff to do. We’ve got motorbikes and a creek on the farm so I can go swimming with the dogs too.”

In a breakout year with the javelin, Tori Peeters is agonisingly close to qualifying for Tokyo. Photo: supplied.

TORI PEETERS

“We’re Kiwis and we’re adaptable,” says javelin thrower Tori Peeters. “I think it will play to our strengths.”

Peeters, who’s just a javelin’s length away from qualifying for her first Olympics, is confident New Zealand athletes can make the most of this lockdown period when the Games finally happen.

“We’ve just got to accept what it is now and be adaptable. We’re Kiwis, we’ve got No.8 wire mentality, so I think we'll have an advantage."

Peeters is part of a bunch of Kiwi sportswomen keeping each other motivated by connection through a What's App group. "We’re banding together as athletes, to keep each other going, because we’re all in the same boat now.”

She admits having the right mindset will be as challenging as keeping in shape for the next month or more.

“I’m about to start my training block, but for what? There are no competitions for us," she says. "But as far as we know there is still an Olympic Games, so we stick at it and keep preparing as if nothing has changed.”

She plans to keep going outside – alone – and throwing her javelin, and has gym equipment from High Performance Sport NZ to now use at home. 

“For those of us who haven’t been to an Olympics before, it’s tough. I’ve had such a breakthrough year and I’m feeling confident I could throw well at the Olympics."

Right now, Peeters is ranked No.32 in the world – the top 32 qualify for Tokyo. “That could still change. But I just have to stick to the original plan and be ready to compete,” she says.

A horror crash on the Tokyo BMX course couldn't keep 19-year-old Jessie Smith out of Olympic contention. Photo: Nico van Dartel.

JESSIE SMITH

BMX junior elite champion Jessie Smith was expecting the IOC’s communiqué, with Covid-19 strangling the world. But she admits Jacinda Ardern’s lockdown announcement superseded the earlier news of potentially postponing the Olympics.

“I think what the government has done is really smart. At this point in time, everyone’s wellbeing and safety is more important in my eyes. Sport is my life at the moment, but it’s not everything,” says Smith. She’s more concerned for those in positions unable to support their families during this pandemic.

“We also don’t know what will happen with the Olympics, but I think it will probably be postponed, which is good. It will give the whole world time to get back on top of things and all the athletes will have the chance to get their training back on track.”

Smith has made the decision to spend the initial four weeks of lockdown at a friend’s farm.

“It means communicating remotely with my coach, psychologist and doctors, but it’s doable. I’ll be working doing general farmhand stuff like milking in the morning and I’ll also be able to hunt, which is all physical labour,” says Smith, who just won the New Zealand qualifier for the Red Bull pump track world championships.

“I feel really safe and I can still continue with my training as best as I can with the new gym gear I need to purchase for the farm.”

Ellesse Andrews (centre) outsprints her Kiwi team-mates and Australian world champions to win the Oceania keirin title. Photo: Dianne Manson

ELLESSE ANDREWS

Track cyclist Ellesse Andrews grabbed a last-minute flight to Christchurch today, leaving Cambridge to return to her family.

With the Avantidrome, home of the national cycling programme, closing its doors, the two-time junior world champion decided she would be happier in lockdown at home with her loved ones.

Andrews had been "feeling good and ready to go". After finishing fifth in the keirin at last month’s world championships in Berlin, she took a refreshing break, and had been back on her bike for the last fortnight. But she's not daunted by the sudden changes to her schedule.

“We’ve got lots of plans in place for the next four weeks. I will be riding on the road, and on the rollers at home. I’ve got the equipment I need in Christchurch.

“In our minds we’re planning and training towards the Games in July – until further notice. You just have to put your head down now and do your best.”

It would be young sprinter’s dream to ride in Tokyo in the keirin: “It’s fast, fun and vicious”.  New Zealand has qualified for a place in the keirin; she now has to wait for selection and the decision on when - and if - the Olympics go ahead.

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