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Olympic Postponement Has Athletes Questioning Next Moves

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY PETER SPURRIER AND ED MORAN

When the decision to postpone the 2020 Olympics was announced Tuesday, the news did not come as a surprise to most athletes training in the hopes of rowing for a medal in Tokyo this summer.

Over the last several days, athletes and sports governing associations around the world have called for the International Olympic Committee to postpone, while Canada and Australia announced that they would not go to Tokyo this summer regardless.

And with each passing day and announcement, and as the worldwide battle to contain the Covid-19 virus brought more restrictions to normal life, hopes that the 2020 Tokyo Games could be held were diminished.

“I think over the past couple of days, it’s become clear that this was going to happen, especially when some other Olympic teams started pulling out,” said U.S. 2016 Olympian Austin Hack.

“Even as recently as the beginning of last week, when the shelter in place order was coming out, I was optimistic that the new measures being taken pretty much worldwide to contain this virus were going to be effective enough that we would still be able to have some kind of Olympics this summer. But in the past week it became clear that this was the only path,” he said.

“Given the current situation, postponing was the right call unfortunately. I think maybe it was theoretically possible that the Games still could have gone on but I think from a health perspective there was a lot of risk given how unpredictable the current situation is.”

That was the reaction of multiple athletes, coaches and rowing officials yesterday who said they felt that canceling the 2020 Games was the correct decision considering the rapid spread and yet unknown course of the Pandemic, but also said the felt while decision brought finality to the questions of would the Olympics be held, and how could athletes under the worldwide lockdown train successfully – the decision left a whole new set of unanswered questions.

Still unknown is when the Games will be rescheduled. The announcement said that they had been postponed until next year, but no specific date has been set.

And that leaves a level of uncertainty that will have many athletes questioning how to continue pursuing their Olympic quests, or to if they will continue. During an interview Tuesday, IOC Vice President Anita DeFrantz said the IOC leadership understands the implications postponement brings, but does not know when an answer on rescheduling could be made.

Anita DeFrantz in Sarasota, Florida.

“I certainly wish I knew the answer to that because while the decision gives the athletes some certainty, it’s not going to be July of this year, it gives them far less certainty for when it will be, and I know that is really hard for athletes.”

DeFrantz, who won a bronze medal in the US women’s eight in the 1976 Olympics, and was part of the team that could not compete due to the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, said she understands what the athletes are now going through, and the decisions they face.

“Athletes will have to decide if they can do this for another year, or if it is time to get on with their other life because training is such an intensive experience. So many decisions have been made to get to the point where they can train, and of course now, they can’t train,” she said.

“It’s just really difficult and having been in a similar situation without the consequences of infecting others and causing death, I know it’s just a terrible situation for athletes to be in. They want to do the right thing, but it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is.”

The Right Thing

What the “right thing” will be is something that is being contemplated today by Olympic hopefuls everywhere, and those decisions will mean the end of international careers for some while for others there are will be considerations of family and career impact.

Hack, who rowed in the 2016 U.S. men’s eight had plans to focus on his building his career post-Tokyo 2020, and said he is now unsure what he will do, especially with the lack of an announced new date for 2021.

“I’m mentally still processing this,” Hack said. “I try not to get too worked up about things I can’t control, but I was definitely planning to take some big steps in starting a new career this year, and if I am coming back to the team, that’s going to get delayed yet another year.”

Austin Hack training in Oakland, California.

“I think I feel the way that all the other athletes feel, both in rowing and in other sports, that adding another year to the already stressful Olympic cycle definitely is going to take even more sacrifices from loved ones and athletes planning on getting moving on careers. I understand it, but it’s a little bit of a tough pill to swallow,” said Hack.

Right now, Hack and U.S. athletes in both Oakland and Princeton training centers, are working out in isolation due to stay at home orders in both of those states. Like Hack, two-time Olympic gold medalist Meghan Musnicki was training on an erg borrowed from the U.S. training center Tuesday morning.

After winning her second gold medal in the women’s eight in Rio, and then taking time away from the sport in 2017 and 2018, Musnicki returned to the Princeton training center and was focused on rowing in Tokyo.

Tuesday morning, Musnicki was thinking about what her next steps would be, but seemed intent on continuing.  

“I’ve been at the training center for the better part of the last 12 years, since 2008,” Musnicki said. “Obviously, I’ve been back and forth a little bit in the last couple of years, but the last 12 years of my life for all intent and purposes has been this. I’ve got to think about it. I meet with [women’s head coach Tom Terhaar] Thursday, he’s meeting with all of us.

“I’m not ready to walk away from this, it’s devastating and really hard to wrap my head around it in some respects but in other respects the competitive side of me is, I came back a year and a half ago because I wanted to train to make the Tokyo Olympics. And that’s what I am going to continue to do.

While Musnicki is one of the senior veterans on the team and was intending this to be her final Olympics, she hopes she has another year in her and does not want the deciding factor for this cycle to be the postponement.

“I hope so,” she said. “That’s what I’m banking on. I’m not going to let this be the deciding factor about whether I make my third and final Olympic team. If I don’t make the Olympic team, I want it to be because I’ve been injured, or I’m not good enough, or not helping the boat go faster. I don’t want it to be for a factor that is completely out of my control like that.

In Boston, the pressure to make a decision is just as pressing on Gevvie Stone, who is currently training with two other Cambridge Boat Club women Olympic hopefuls. Stone rowed in the past two Olympics and won a silver medal in the women’s single in Rio.

She had plans to contend for a place on the U.S. team and Tuesday said she does not know if she can put another full year of training in. Stone’s decision will also be impacted by the fact that she is a doctor and had put off her residency as an emergency room physician the last two seasons to train for the 2020 Olympics.

Her residency is scheduled to resume in August.

Gevvie Stone after winning a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“A little part of me could see [the postponement] coming over the last few days, especially with the announcements of Canada and Australia pulling out Monday,” Stone said.

“We actually had a meeting [Monday] about the fact that it was inevitable, that it would be postponed, so I can’t say that [Tuesday’s] announcement was the one big blow. It’s been kind of a gradual tearing, and it’s hard. Putting everything into perspective, this is really hard,” she said. “But I am lucky it’s not a life or death situation for me, which is what a lot of people in the world are facing right now.

“I have put a lot on hold to train for this summer, and had been feeling fit and fast and excited to race. I was also excited to get back to residency. I was supposed to start August 17. So, a lot is up in the air. I’ve been in contact with friends and family to kind of hear their thoughts.

“Even just figuring out the options for me, I’m not sure another year is not even an option,” she said. “I’m a person who likes answers, and I have very few answers right now. And it’s hard, really hard.”

The Path for Coaches and Officials

Following a conference call between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, a statement on the postponement did not include a new date. The released statement said only that the Games would “be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.”

USRowing followed that announcement with a statement that supporting the decision, but the association was also waiting for a new date.

“Today’s announcement from the IOC and IPC established a time frame for the postponement as starting in 2021 and not to go past the summer of 2021,” the statement read. “Once the IOC and IPC set dates and FISA establishes its qualifying events, USRowing’s high-performance teams will meet and determine the appropriate selection process for the rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

See the full statement here.

In the meantime, coaches and athletes are on hold and are planning meetings to see which athletes will stay on and which will not.

“Honestly, right now we are sort of developing a plan,” said U.S. men’s head coach Mike Teti. “Everyone has been great, they’ve been doing the shelter in place, and they have their own ergs. But for some guys, it’s going to be a major decision to stay another year. We have a few guys getting married. Some have career plans they’ve made.

“I sent out an email and we’re going to have individual meetings with each guy and then we will go from there. We don’t know what’s going to happen. When they said the Olympics are going to be sometime in 2021, is it February?

“I think people are assuming it’s the summer, but no one really knows for sure so to me, I think let’s wait till it’s definitive when it’s going to be. And then come up with a game plan for that,” Teti said.

“In the meantime, our number one priority is to make sure all our athletes are healthy and I think it’s been good so far, no one has gotten the virus and everyone seems healthy, so in that perspective we’re in good shape.”

Teti said while he knows the pressure the postponement is putting on athletes, he said the Pandemic and the worldwide effort for containment, is most important.

“I think this puts things in perspective. The real key to life is figuring out what’s important and what’s not important, and for me family is most important, and then you go from there,” he said. “We are a little inconvenienced for a period of time and we’ll move on and be stronger for it.”

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