• The Star Staff

What these athletes learned from their pandemic pauses


By Matthew Futterman, Juliet Macur, Talya Minsberg and James Wagner


The coronavirus pandemic had been blanketing countries and devastating populations for months by the time the American sports landscape was touched in mid-March. As positive cases were confirmed in professional athletes, leagues shut down completely, postponed entire seasons and, in the case of the Olympic and the Paralympic Games, delayed culminating events until 2021.


Almost seven months have passed since then, a time in which more than 229,000 people in the United States have died from the virus, 9 million Americans have tested positive, and the world has been irrevocably altered. In that landscape, sports took a back seat by necessity, and the virus charted a wholly new course for athletes whose lives are normally defined by the parameters of the competitive calendar.


Since May, four of them have given The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments.


Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


‘It tried so hard to break me and, you know what? It didn’t.’


— Sunisa Lee, gymnast


An Olympic team hopeful, Lee, 17, had been prepping to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games. The pandemic threw those plans off course and brought heartbreaking tragedy to her family, as a beloved aunt and uncle died of COVID-19, just 13 days apart.


What’s helped me get through this year is remembering that it’s been a weird time for everybody. Now I think pretty much everybody on the national team is back training like usual. I’ve been able to do all my skills, but getting through my routines is hard because I need more endurance after taking so much time off.


The biggest thing that’s changed since last year is that there are so many new girls trying for the Olympic team now. It’s crazy how many new girls there are! They’re ones who didn’t qualify for 2020 because they were a year too young, but now qualify for 2021 because the rules changed to let girls turning 16 next year compete. Personally, I feel like it’s unfair, and I’m sure a lot of the other older girls agree with me. It puts a lot more pressure on us older gymnasts, but we do have a lot of experience, and that means a lot.


We haven’t had a national team camp in a long, long time, and I miss it because I miss seeing my friends there. When we’re there, the national team coaches select us for future meets after seeing what each of us can do. But now we have to show the coaches on video instead of showing them in person, and I don’t like it. I’d rather perform live and in person, because I actually like getting nervous. I like the adrenaline. If the Olympic trials will happen without fans, that’s really not going to be much fun for me, because I love performing.


Outside of gymnastics, I was hoping this would be a regular year for me, and it would’ve been if the Olympics would’ve happened last summer. I would have gone to a regular school and would have been a regular senior in high school, with me getting ready for college. There would be no stress, but lots of fun, like going to senior tailgates. They had one senior tailgate this year that I would’ve gone to, but didn’t, because, yep, I had practice. It would’ve been a great last year of high school if the pandemic didn’t happen and I wasn’t still training for Tokyo.


I guess I’m sad about senior year being so different, but it’s not like that big of a deal, really. To me, the Olympics has been such a big goal for me for so long, and it always comes with a lot of sacrifices. I just have to go with the flow and remind myself to not get too upset about anything that’s out of my control.


For a long time this year, I was depressed that the Olympics were so far, far off, but I’m excited for 2021 now. I’ve been training so hard, and a memory popped up on my phone the other day of us winning the team final at worlds last year. It’s crazy because that seemed like just yesterday! So in some ways, this year has gone by so, so slowly. In other ways, it has gone by so, so fast.


Of course it’s my nightmare that the Olympics won’t happen after all and that I trained a whole extra year for nothing. But I’ve convinced myself that they are going to happen. I have to believe that I’m training for Tokyo. I have to envision it. A couple of months ago, I decided to focus on being more positive, and I think it definitely helps me if I really have a bad day — or a bad year. It helps to remind yourself that things don’t stay bad forever. So 2021 has to be better than 2020. I just know it will be.


‘I’ve got to keep moving’


— Rudy Garcia-Tolson, paralympic swimmer, runner and triathlete


Rudy Garcia-Tolson, 32, had retired from competition after winning a medal five times in previous Paralympics, most recently in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The pandemic inspired him to try to swim in another Games, a decision that drove him on a cross-country search for safe places to train.


The fires in California made for a nasty few weeks. Where I live, near Riverside, is about 50 miles from the El Dorado Fire, and the Bobcat Fire was about 20 miles away. It was two weeks of brown skies and ashes on the car and that smell. I couldn’t even walk my dog without a mask.


Fortunately, in Malibu, where I train at David Duchovny’s house, the air was much better. It’s near the beach, and there was a coastal breeze. So it was nowhere near as bad. I didn’t really miss any days.


I’m swimming five days a week now, Tuesday through Saturday. I’m up to 6,000 yards a day. In late September, I did five freestyle sets of 200 yards. I did one every three minutes. I did the first one in 2 minutes 38 seconds and descended, dropping with each one all the way down to 2:22. When I did that set, I knew I was starting to feel good.


The last few weeks I have been experiencing more intensely the challenge training by myself. It’s been two months of me doing this all on my own. It’s getting a little harder to do the self-talking, to put all the effort in on every last set. It’s not like that when you have people around pushing you.


It’s the hardest part about coming back from scratch and building myself back up. It would be so easy to take the day off and go easy.


I will start looking for a competition in November or December. That will be Step 1, to compete and dive off the starting blocks. I haven’t dived off the starting blocks since Rio. Hopefully I can meet the national team standard for my event, and then I can talk to the national team coaches about training at the Olympic Training Center sometime in the new year.


One big difference will be the altitude. They are at 5,000 feet in Colorado. The first week is going to suck, but after that, I should be good.


I need to go 2:38 in the 200-meter individual medley. That is my main event. That is a speed I am familiar with.


Before Rio, that was a time I consistently hit for three or four months. Then I went 2:33.8.

My other event is the 100-meter breast stroke. My breast stroke comes together a little further down the line.


The men’s team has a lot of young guys. Some of them have only competed once or twice internationally, at the Pan Am or the World Championships. There is a big difference between those events and the Paralympics.


Right now, though, I just need to prove myself.


‘I’m going to remember that we were able to come together as a league.’


—Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm forward


A champion and league Most Valuable Player in 2018, Stewart, 26, was excited to return to the WNBA after rehabbing a ruptured Achilles tendon. She won another title in the league’s bubble in Florida this year even as she and other players promoted racial justice, voting rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.


It doesn’t feel real yet. Being in the bubble and everything makes it feel more crazy. I mean we took care of business, and that’s what we wanted to do. Anytime we play, we want to sweep them, but what’s more motivation to win than getting out of the bubble?


I think it’s just kind of a testament to everything that I went through last year. Being able to be back where I was, being able to play at such a high level and make an impact? I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to do, and it shows. Not a lot of people come back from an Achilles injury and have the same impact, and I was still able to have a huge impact.


It’s the mindset and just the work ethic. I was in rehab as many days as I could be and continued to put the pressure on myself because I was the only one that was going to get me back to this place. I put in the time. It’s a lot of tedious stuff and it’s just about being patient and doing the right thing. I’m 26 years old, I have a lot of playing days left and I want to make sure I make the most of them and I want to put myself in a position to be able to do that.


It was kind of weird leaving. I took a 6 a.m. flight back to Seattle, and it was like, ‘OK, bye.’

There wasn’t much more to it. We celebrated that night. And then people took their flights, people got to go home. I landed back in Seattle, and my mom picked me up and we went back home. I think that’s what it needed to be. We had a virtual Zoom celebration with our fans, which was cool. But, you know, we all know you can’t replicate things on Zoom.

Whenever I see anybody, they say congratulations, which is nice.


I think the one thing I’ll miss is safety. You got to have a conversation with people and not be worried about where they’ve been or who they’ve been around or the possibility of having COVID-19. Our bubble was super, super secure and that was nice.


Looking back on this time, I’ll think of the important messages that we were able to highlight. I’ll think about what happened during quarantine from, like, March to June when we basically were not going anywhere. Everybody was in their house and, like I said, appreciating the little things in life. I’ll think about Breonna Taylor. I think that she still hasn’t achieved justice, even if there was a settlement. And we need to continue to be better.


I’m going to remember that we were able to come together as a league, all of the players representing more than just us. It’s going to be a historic season because we really amplified the message and that was priority No. 1, and then we played basketball.


‘I embraced everything about this year.’


— Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners center fielder


Lewis, 25, was about to begin his much anticipated first full season in the major leagues when MLB suspended the end of spring training. After a standout performance during a truncated 60-game regular season, Lewis is in prime position to claim the American League Rookie of the Year Award.


After the season ended, I went to Arizona for a little bit and hung out with some of my teammates there. Then I went to Los Angeles for a little bit. Been doing a little bit of travel.

And then I went back home. It’s good to be home in Atlanta. I’m not scared of traveling. I just wear my mask and stay out of the way. Now I’ll be back home and won’t be on flights too much. I’m trying to be safe with it but still live my life.


This year, my life has changed a lot. I’ve gotten a whole lot more requests coming through my phone now. I need to be much more organized with the way that I spend my time now knowing the importance of spending time the right way. A lot more business that I have to attend to. Personal, family, financial — all aspects.


Overall, what I take away from this year is the importance of understanding who you are and the person you want to show up as every day and the organization that’s required to be able to do that. The mental clarity that you need to be able to do that on a consistent basis. With success comes responsibility and the understanding that to be consistent in who you are and the way that you go about your life requires a higher level of organization. So that’s what I’ve been learning and that’s what I’ve been continuing to pay a lot of attention to.


I’m also proud of carrying myself the right way and being able to get great feedback as far as the way that I carried myself. Being able to, day in and day out, be respected as a solid human and an inspiration to the younger generations — that’s something I don’t take lightly.


I embraced everything about this year. I believe in everything being connected. The highs and lows, they’re just opportunities in different forms. You’re always moving forward in life. You don’t play as well sometimes or sometimes you let your temper get the better of you, but ultimately those are all just opportunities and situations where, if you pay attention to them, you can get a lot out of them. I don’t try to forget anything.


This year was very challenging from a standpoint of wanting to be able to help with situations that we would consider to be bigger than baseball but then also having the obligation of playing. With it being my first year, and me wanting to establish myself as a major league player, at the same time feeling the responsibility to not turn a blind eye to the things that are going around us and in our communities. That definitely was hard mentally to understand where I stood and that balance of things.

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