Part 2: Olympic hopefuls adjust training to year-long delay, shelter-in-place orders

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Part 1 on reactions to the postponement can be found here.

In late March, 2016 Olympic water polo gold medalists Makenzie ’20 and Aria Fischer ’22 woke up to the news that the Olympics had been postponed.

The two sisters, who both play for Stanford and the U.S., elected to take off the 2019-20 academic year to prepare for the Olympics shortly after claiming the NCAA Championship title last spring. Up until mid-March 2020, the reigning gold medalists had been training full-time with the U.S. national team in Los Alamitos, Calif. in hopes of making their second appearance at the Games.

But the 2020 Tokyo Games’ postponement presented a difficult scenario: to compete, they would have to put everything non-water polo on hold for an additional year.

“There was a moment when I didn’t know if I could do this Olympics thing again,” Mackenzie said. 

Like many other team sports, water polo has a “hard and fast rule” that requires its top athletes to devote the entire year leading up to the Olympics to training together and “gelling” as a team, the Fischer sisters said. For the two of them, that means practicing with the U.S. national team nearly every day for upwards of seven hours.

Mackenzie had planned to return to Stanford in the fall and focus solely on school. With the postponement of the Games, she now hopes to pursue a “hybrid” plan where she can both prepare for the Olympics and enroll at Stanford. Despite the challenges, Mackenzie is taking on the balancing act in order to continue both her athletics and academics.

“I started thinking about why I do love [water polo] so much, and now I’m at a place where I’m willing to make whatever work,” she said.

What does the additional year mean for Stanford athletes?

Now that an official Olympic start date has been set for July 23, 2021, many athletes are beginning a revised journey towards the next Olympics. For a number of athletes, while the postponement delays their path to the games, their ambitions are left unhindered.

“Yes, a big event was taken away from – I wouldn’t even say taken away. It’s been pushed back a year,” said swimmer Katie Drabot ’20, stopping to correct herself mid-sentence. 

For Drabot, the Tokyo Olympic trials will be her third. As a teenager, she qualified to compete at the U.S. trials for both Rio and London. After winning her first world championships medal in last year’s third-place finish at the 2019 FINA World Championships, Drabot had begun what would have been an Olympic year with more experience and focus. 

“I was going into [the trials] with an open mind — whatever happens, happens. But I was just gonna make sure that I was doing whatever I could to put myself in the best position,” Drabot said. 

To dedicate herself to training, Drabot had planned to take spring quarter off to prepare for the 2020 Summer Olympics, but since the postponement, she is back to taking courses. With her collegiate career coming to a close, she is continuing to explore opportunities to swim professionally, which is something that she had in mind before the pandemic. 

For her teammate Brooke Forde ’21, who had also originally planned to take spring quarter off to focus on training for the games, this year would have marked her second Olympic trials after her attempt to qualify for Rio in 2016.  

After her sophomore season, where she collected her first individual NCAA title by winning the 500 yard freestyle, Forde also competed at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships.

“I was definitely heading into the summer in a way different place than I was certainly four years ago,” she said. “My goal was to try and make the team, and it is still [the goal]. Just putting that off for a year.”

But pursuing Olympic dreams given the postponement is trickier for others. 

Grant Breckenridge ’20, a Nissen-Emery Award finalist, ended his decorated four years as a Stanford gymnast in the 2019 season and completed his degree in the winter of 2020. These few months leading up to the original start date for the Olympic Games would have marked a finale to his gymnastics career, before he retired athletically and “moved on to the real world.” 

“I didn’t have a job lined up yet, because I wasn’t planning on starting anything until September. The job market right now is not doing so hot,” he said, shrugging a laugh. 

Breckenridge earned a spot on the U.S. Senior National Team after competing at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas this past February. Stanford teammates Brody Malone ’22 and Akash Modi ’17 are also on Team USA. With the extra year, however, Breckenridge is now confronted with the challenge of where to train.

“Stanford’s the best environment to train in, but it’s a very expensive area. On a national team salary, you can skate by,” Breckenridge said. “But if I were to not make it in August [at the national championships], then I don’t know if I’d be able to do it financially.”

Nonetheless, the recent grad plans to keep training. 

“This is pretty much my only shot because gymnasts’ bodies break down pretty quickly,” Breckenridge said.

Even for current students, for those who have already delayed their academic progress to focus on training, the additional year comes at a cost. 

For water polo players — Tyler Abramson ’21, Ben Hallock ’20, Bennett Williams ’20 and Dylan Woodhead ’20 — who compete both for Stanford and the U.S., the shelter-in-place ordinances in Los Angeles forced them to stop training altogether. The four had taken a leave of absence from Stanford after winning the 2019 NCAA Championships in December to focus on the Olympics.

“Our practices went from three times a day to none and resulted in all of us being sent home to do our civic duty and shelter-in-place,” Woodhead wrote in an email.

For Hallock, who competed at the 2016 Olympics, the postponement prompted him to reconsider his academic path. Like the Fischer sisters, Hallock intended on returning to Stanford in the fall to finish his Economics degree and minor Management Science and Engineering.

“The problem is now that next winter and spring there is also going to be full-time training so I am currently sorting through different options where I can graduate after the fall quarter,” he said.

How are Stanford athletes training in a pandemic? 

The postponement’s impact on athletes’ education and career plans is a challenge in and of itself, but training during a pandemic is yet another unprecedented obstacle. 

For water sports, training is hardly an option for many. Since returning home to Wisconsin, Drabot has mostly stuck to cardio exercises on land. A few in her area have reached out to the three-time national champion to lend their backyard pools. But many of these neighborhood-friendly pools are shorter than the 50 meter stretch used in competitions. Some of them are too short for the 5-foot-7 athlete to swim back and forth; in these cases, Drabot hooks herself to a resistance band and swims in place for an hour or so. 

“Right now, it’s not necessarily about the quality of work but just wanting to get my feel for the water,” Drabot said. 

Diver Carolina Sculti ’22 had triumphed as the Pac-12 Champion in the 3-meter dive and was preparing to compete at the NCAA Championships in late March until the national event was cancelled, abruptly ending her sophomore campaign. Since returning home to New York, Sculti has had to get creative with training. 

With all facilities closed, Sculti has not been diving. Given these unprecedented restraints, Sculti is working on alternative ways to stay in shape like doing bodyweight circuits that her weight coach shares with the team. As much as she can, she’s trying to do “diving related things” without equipment. For example, she does flip sets on a trampoline in her backyard. 

“By the time we are able to get back in the water, we already are going to have to do so much catching up,” she said. “Staying in shape is really just one of the things that we can control in the situation. So we’re all doing our best to work out as much as we can while we have the time. The main comforting thing for me is that just everyone is in the same boat. I see all of my biggest competitors on Instagram, posting bodyweight circuits, ab sets, flip sets — no one’s able to train.” 

Even on land, sports that require specific facilities for training pose taxing limitations. Malone, who finished his season as the national leader on parallel bars and ranked second in the all-around, hoped for an Olympic postponement by the time facilities started to shut down. 

“[My] gym back home doesn’t have the greatest equipment to train on, and that’s a big factor when you’re training [for] Olympic routines,” Malone said. 

When Malone returned to his family in Georgia, he went to his club gym, where he trained prior to attending Stanford. From this club gym, he picked up a floor pommel horse, parallettes, bungees and small weights to attempt to train at his house in Georgia. But even so, Malone expects a “readjustment” period once he is able to get back into regular training. 

“I’m sure it’s gonna be a long comeback after this break is over,” Malone said. 

The bottom line

While Stanford athletes’ plans, prospects and training are impacted to varying degrees, the interviewees unanimously voiced that the postponement was the right choice.

“It’s absolutely the right call to not have an Olympic Games this summer,” former Stanford runner Grant Fisher ‘19 said. 

Training alongside some of the fastest names in the sport, Fisher has been preparing for the Olympics with the Nike Bowerman Track Club since graduating from the Farm. But the journey towards the Olympic Games has stretched far beyond his time with Nike; afterall, the Olympics often is a life-long dream.

“The Olympics is the biggest event for track and field,” Fisher said. “Our sponsors and our contracts and everything else revolves around the Olympics and performance at the Olympics because it’s the biggest stage for our sport. People really shape their careers, their plans, their training, their goals all around the Olympics.”

But for everything that the Olympics represents and all the training that has gone into preparing for the Games, Fisher is in firm agreement that the event should be postponed. After all, coupled with the concerns for public health, most athletes aren’t able to train with many facilities closed worldwide.

“I would not have been in my best position had the Olympic trials been this summer,” Forde said. [It’s] definitely the best decision for the general public and for health concerns.”

While the postponement impacts athletes on varying levels, the road to the games, although delayed, still continues for most. 

“You take a deep breath,” Drabot said. “You do what you can do, and you move on.”

Contact Inyoung Choi  at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu and Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Hi, thanks for reading! I'm Inyoung (she/her) and I'm a senior at Stanford. The Daily is great - support the Daily!
Alejandro Salinas '21 is a Senior Staff Writer after serving as the Managing Editor of Sports for two volumes. Hailing from Pasadena, CA, he studies computer science and biology as a junior. In his free time he enjoys running, playing with dogs and watching sports. Contact him at asalinas 'at' stanford.edu.