It’s a moment many dream of, but far fewer achieve.
For marathoner Jake Riley ’12, his Olympic berth came on the streets of Atlanta on a sunny afternoon. Despite trailing the leaders by over 40 seconds with six miles remaining, Riley made pivotal moves over the final stretch of the race to position himself in second as he crossed the finishing line.
The former eight-time All-American runner at Stanford clocked the fastest marathon of his career to punch his ticket to Tokyo.
“I was riding that high for a week and a half after,” he said, recalling the joyous career milestone.
For Riley, the Feb. 29 trials were a promising sign that the Olympics themselves would happen in the summer. Up until that day, the U.S. had yet to announce its first case of COVID-19, and it wouldn’t be for another week and a half until the World Health Organization (WHO) would declare the coronavirus a pandemic.
As the number of reported COVID-19 cases increased domestically, the sports world came to a jolting halt. The series of sports cancelations and postponements that cascaded throughout March left many Stanford athletes, current and former, with challenging decisions to make about the future of their training. For some, the postponement of the Olympics has presented itself as merely a delay in the road to Tokyo. For others, the additional year-long wait may prove to be a premature close to their athletic careers.
Many current and former Stanford athletes, like Riley, were preparing for the Tokyo Olympics when the virus was reported on U.S. soil at the end of February. At the time, the case was the first known instance of COVID-19 in the U.S., but months later, the country learned that the virus was present as early as January.
While Riley was fortunate to qualify for the Olympics before major sporting events began shutting down, many other athletes faced shelter in place orders and social distancing guidelines while preparing for their own Trials.
Harrison Williams ’19, the 2019 NCAA indoor heptathlon champion, followed the development of the virus closely, anticipating that health precautions would inevitably affect his training. Since graduating from Stanford, he has been training at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill under the direction of Michael Eskind, an associate head coach for UNC track and field and Williams’ former multi-events coach at Stanford.
After both the NBA and the NCAA suspended their seasons on March 11 and 12, respectively, it became clear to Williams that his path to the Olympic trials would take a drastic turn. Track and field athletes like Williams rely on college and professional meets to prepare for the U.S. Olympics Trials, which were originally set to begin on June 19.
“Right after they cancelled the spring sports, all of the college meets that basically were going to be my entire season leading up to the trials were canceled,” he said. “I was kind of freaking out.”
The NCAA’s swift action happened on the same day that the Olympic torch was lit, signaling that the Games would continue as expected. In a statement following the ceremony, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated, “Many measures being taken now by authorities all around the world give us confidence and keep us fully committed to delivering Olympic Games that can bring the world together in peace.”
For three-time NCAA Champion Katie Drabot ’20, a senior on the women’s swimming and diving team, the postponements and cancellations in mid-March were “overwhelming.”
“You know, you’re living hour-by-hour. You don’t really know what’s coming next, especially with how fast the news of cancellations and postponements of many events was coming out,” she said.
Drabot and teammate Brooke Forde ’21, also a three-time national champion, were going to take a leave of absence during spring quarter to focus on Olympic training. The two had plans to spend several weeks training at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs under Greg Meehan, their coach at Stanford and the head coach of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming team.
But after Colorado’s public health order, which mandated the temporary suspension of gyms, went into effect on the morning of March 17, the OTC announced it would close its doors the following day.
After much deliberation on where to go, the two teammates flew to Kentucky, Forde’s home state. They were only able to get in a few training sessions before those facilities also shut down, Drabot recalled.
Similarly, as the UNC lifting facilities and tracks closed, Williams and his training partners shifted to utilizing local parks, and on one occasion even hopped a fence at a local high school just to get onto the track to work out.
“At that point, as far as we knew, the Olympics were still on, so we had to keep training,” Williams said.
Williams said the U.S. Olympic Committee held a call with all athletes who were “potentially going to make it” to the Games. He recalled being frustrated with the news that the IOC was going to take four weeks to make a decision on the Olympics, which would have pushed the announcement to mid-April.
“That kind of pissed all of us off because we couldn’t really wait four weeks,” he said.
Canadian swimmer Taylor Ruck ’22, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, was in Florida tapering for the Canadian Olympic Trials when her home country announced on March 22 that it would pull its athletes out of the Olympics.
After winning a national title with Stanford her freshman year, Ruck redshirted her sophomore season to take the entire year off from school to focus on training for the 2020 Games. At the time of Canada’s announcement, she had only been in Florida training for a week.
According to Ruck, sending the athletes home was the indicator that Canada didn’t want them to train anymore. After Canada pulled out of the Olympics, she said she knew the Olympics weren’t going to proceed as expected.
When the IOC officially confirmed on March 24 that the Olympics would be postponed nearly a full year, the announcement was met with relief and gratitude by many.
“I was very glad they made that announcement earlier, rather than four weeks later, because I didn’t want to have to keep training full-time while there’s like a pandemic going on,” Williams recalled.
The postponement does carry a silver lining for some. Many athletes are trying their best to stay positive in the thick of pandemic. For Stanford’s four professional runners at the Nike Bowerman Track Club — Elise Cranny ’19, Grant Fisher ’19, Vanessa Fraser ’17 M.S. ’18 and Sean McGorty ’18 — the extra year affords them more time to train and develop as younger athletes in their sport.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Cranny, a 12-time All-American, said.
The four anticipated using the upcoming outdoor track and field season to prepare for the Olympics, including competing at the annual Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford, but after colleges closed their outdoor track season, they had to adjust their plans. Nevertheless, the additional year helps these younger athletes.
“Another year under my coach’s system and another year of more consistent and higher mileage behind trusted training only has the potential to help me,” McGorty said.
Albane Valenzuela ’20, a golfer at Stanford who turned professional in November, anticipates using the extra year to improve her world ranking and be in a better position to qualify for the Olympics and represent her home country, Switzerland. Before arriving at Stanford as a freshman, she had already competed in the 2016 Rio Games.
“Having that experience from 2016, I really wanted to qualify for 2020,” she said. “Now, you have to reassess your goals and I think that’s what’s happening to a lot of athletes.”
Fortunately for Riley, his Olympic qualification in the marathon will be honored in 2021. He’ll look to use the additional year to continue training and potentially enter in a marathon, should one happen.
For many others, their respective sports have yet to name an Olympic roster. For instance, the U.S. Olympic Trials for both swimming and track and field have been rescheduled for June of 2021. With social distancing guidelines varying by region and varying degrees of accessibility to training equipment, training amid a pandemic will be a challenge in and of itself.
Continue to Part 2 to read more on training amid a pandemic.
Contact Inyoung Choi at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu and Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.