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A mere two weeks ago, Nathaniel Coleman’s precautions against contracting COVID-19 consisted of washing his hands more frequently and trying not to touch his face. The Olympic climber from Salt Lake City continued to train at a local climbing gym, though, where he acknowledged hundreds of people were scaling its walls by touching the same holds he used.
Now the climbing gyms are closed by order of the government. Outdoor climbing presents too much injury risk at a time when hospitals are already taxed. And Coleman rarely leaves the house as he does his part to practice social distancing.
What does that mean for his training for the Tokyo Games scheduled to start in just four months? In the short term, it’s hours of in-home workouts. If restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the deadly virus last more than a month or so, though, Coleman like many other Olympians and Olympic hopefuls will have to either get creative or careless.
Simply put, when it comes to a long-term plan for training for the Tokyo Olympics in a world besieged by a deadly virus, the 22-year-old who counts his grip as one of his strengths has been unable to grasp one.
“I think that two to three weeks of total rest is how long it takes a body to lose its power and neurological firing ability in the muscles,” he said. “Something that is comforting in a way is everybody is in the same boat across the world. It’s about who can maintain the psyche to train when they can’t train the way they love the most.”
It’s an issue faced both by athletes who have secured a spot in the 2020 Olympics, like Coleman — the first American male to qualify for the Games in climbing, which is new to the Olympics — and those still hoping to earn one. In addition to staying in shape for the Olympics, the latter of those athletes also have to be prepared to race in qualifiers, some as soon as May, that may or may not be postponed.
Some have questioned whether International Olympic Committee and Japanese Olympic Committee members have a grip on reality as they continue to insist the Games will go on as scheduled. USA Track and Field joined USA Swimming on Saturday in asking the IOC to postpone the event. That followed the same suggestion made Friday by the chairman of the governing body for the United Kingdom’s track and field program.
In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday, IOC president Thomas Bach insisted Tokyo would host the next summer Olympics.
“We owe it to all the athletes, and we owe it to all the half of the world that watches the Olympics, to say we are not putting the cancellation of the Games on the agenda,” he said.
Bach did not rule out postponing the Games, noting “We are considering different scenarios.” He did say he realizes some athletes will have to get “creative” with their training.
“We also have seen athletes are very creative to bridge this gap for training at home and other training methods,” he said. “It is a unique exceptional situation, which requires exceptional solutions.”
BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez may be one of the athletes looking for an exceptional solution if the pools in and around Provo continue to be shut down.
Dominguez secured a tentative pass to represent the Dominican Republic in the 2020 Games when he became the first from that country to swim the Olympic “B” standard in the 100-meter breaststroke. With the “B” standard, though, he still needs his country’s national governing body of swimming to pick him for the Olympic team. If he swims the “A” standard, which is less than 2 seconds faster than his personal best of 1 minute, 1.28 seconds, he expects he will be a shoo-in.
Dominguez, and anyone else wanting the spot, has until June 29 to improve his time. His best chance to do that, he expected, would have been at the Dominican Republic national championships, where he is the defending champion. Scheduled for April, they have been postponed indefinitely. Yet if/when they are held, it is entirely possible Dominguez won’t have been in the pool for months before his race since the BYU pool closed indefinitely Wednesday.
“It was the only pool open in Provo, so I don’t have any place to go swim,” he said. “Coaches are telling us to do workouts and send us some ideas for workouts and our trainer for weights sends us routines to do at home so we can stay in the best shape we can until this is over.”
Dominguez comes from an area that has seen its share of epidemics, including cholera, zika and dengue fever. He expects the damage from the virus to be intense early and then dwindle in time — hopefully before July 24, when the Tokyo Games are scheduled to begin.
“I’m preparing for the Olympics like it’s going to happen as normal,” he said. “If it gets postponed, it will. But if it doesn’t, I want to be prepared for it.”
Hannah Flippen, a former standout for the University of Utah who was named to USA Softball’s Olympic roster in October, shares that attitude. The team’s spring training was cut short last week and is on hold until May 11, when the organization will re-evaluate the circumstances.
Flippen took some time to visit her family in San Diego before returning to Salt Lake City this week to train, as well as fulfill some of her duties as an assistant coach for the Utes. Sure, she would prefer to be playing the exhibition games on Team USA’s schedule this spring, but training on her own isn’t foreign. In a non-Olympic year, she would spend her spring doing exactly what she plans to do now — taking swings in the batting cages at the Dumke Family Softball Stadium and working out at the school’s gym — as she readied for a summer playing for the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league.
“We’re all training and practicing individually, which all of us have done for our entire professional careers,” Flippen, a 25-year-old middle infielder, said, “In a typical year, we would spend this time on our own anyways. The way things have worked out, it’s obviously unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can’t do as far as training on our own and preparing on our own for any games we’re going to play.”
Most athletes don’t have much choice other than to proceed like things will be back to normal by July. Giving up on their training would be synonymous to giving up on their Olympic dreams.
Coleman is an exception. He said his main goal was simply to earn a spot on USA Climbing’s first Olympic squad. Having done that, he said he feels less pressure to be at his peak when the Games come around. Actually, make that if the Games come around. Like many, he’s growing increasingly skeptical they will even be held.
“I was under the impression the Olympics were going to happen. I was pretty certain,” he said of his mindset less than 14 days ago. “Now I’m less certain. If they do end up canceling the Olympics, it’s going to be for a good reason. I won’t complain about that. I will be sad, but ….”
But the world getting through this pandemic with as few lives lost as possible, he said, is more important to him than getting to the top of any climbing wall. Even one at the Olympics.