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Olympic Athletes Train Through COVID-19 Uncertainty

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Summer Olympics officially open in Tokyo five months from today, and organizers continue to insist the games that were postponed last year - that they will happen. That's despite the uncertainty the pandemic continues to cast around the world. NPR's Tom Goldman reports that aspiring Olympians are trying to stay focused amidst that uncertainty.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On an early February morning in Flagstaff, Ariz., there were a couple of feet of fresh snow and roads still a bit icy. So American middle-distance runner Colleen Quigley opted for some indoor treadmill water.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREADMILL WHIRRING)

GOLDMAN: Quigley specializes in the steeplechase. It's a 7-1/2-lap run with hurdles and a water pit. She was eighth in the event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her prep for the 2020 - now 2021 - games includes this block of high-altitude training in Flagstaff. She says it's hard work at nearly 7,000 feet.

COLLEEN QUIGLEY: You know, we're training and cooking and doing our runs and our gyms and our track workouts and trying to get all the recovery we can in between all that. So there's not a ton of extra emotional energy to be spent.

GOLDMAN: Good thing because recent news had the potential to generate a lot of emotional energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Once again this morning, doubts over the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

GOLDMAN: The alarm bells were ominous as medical experts warned the games will be a massive COVID superspreader event. Up to 80% of the Japanese public didn't want the games, and Olympic organizers frantically tried to quell the doubts. Quigley says she has kind of paid attention.

QUIGLEY: But also not let it, you know, psych me out or get me too upset because I'm going to keep training. Until there's any kind of announcement, I have to keep training as if the games are going to happen.

SEAN MCCANN: Honestly, it's just the latest uncertainty.

GOLDMAN: Sean McCann is senior sports psychologist at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

MCCANN: They've been getting a steady diet of it for the last 14 months.

GOLDMAN: Now in his 30th year of counseling Olympians and Paralympians, McCann says he's never seen athletes face this sustained level of stress. He says there have been more meltdowns, more anxiety as athletes have encountered pandemic-induced obstacles, including canceled competitions. McCann says it's prevented athletes from getting the results and data they normally rely on to let them know how they're doing.

MCCANN: It really heightens the extra stress that athletes always feel during the Olympic year. Especially, like, January to March is really a time where most summer sport athletes are like, I hope all this work is going to pan out.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDMAN: When the U.S. wheelchair rugby team got together this month in Birmingham, Ala., it wasn't a bona fide competition, but it was a good measuring stick as the team held its first training camp in nearly 11 months. Thirty-five-year-old team co-captain Joe Delagrave said it was nice to get back on the court with teammates and off the computer.

JOE DELAGRAVE: Some of those Zoom meetings are just not - don't get the job done virtually that they do in person. That's for sure.

GOLDMAN: Delagrave and 15 other wheelchair rugby hopefuls have embraced the train-like-it's-happening attitude toward a Paralympics scheduled to start in August. Delagrave says he and teammates have endured the recent roller coaster of what-ifs. It's requiring athletes to be resilient, which Delagrave says may come more naturally to Paralympians.

DELAGRAVE: I'm adapting to my surroundings every day. I'm adapting to whether something's accessible or not accessible. I'm adapting to whether or not someone looks at me a certain way because I'm in a wheelchair.

GOLDMAN: All athletes will have to adapt to very different Paralympics and Olympics if they happen. Their stays at the athletes villages will be limited. Media interviews will be socially distanced, and probably there will be few, if any, fans. Runner Colleen Quigley says she's all in regardless.

QUIGLEY: Of course, we'd rather have fans. We'd rather have the whole glitz and glam thing. But I think anyone that you would ask would say, I'd rather have it however we can, and even if it's stripped down, rather than no games at all.

GOLDMAN: So for now, they train and hope in five months' time the battle against the virus is such that they can compete.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "DEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.