When most of the world went into quarantine in mid-March, the International Paralympic Committee was still determined to hold the Tokyo Games in August 2020, as originally scheduled. Athletes continued to train for several weeks, despite lacking access to gyms, swimming pools, tracks, and other basic equipment. When the Games were finally postponed, it eliminated the anxiety of trying to maintain high-intensity conditioning during a pandemic. But the delay raised a new set of uncertainties and upended the routines and rhythms that high-level athletes depend on to stay focused.
We talked to numerous Paralympians throughout the pandemic to get a sense of how they were coping. Here’s some of what we heard about how they adjusted, adapted, and used the one-year postponement to get better at their respective sports.
Melissa Stockwell, Triathlon
I’m 40 years old, and I was asking myself, “Can I keep going for another year?” My husband and I just opened a business, a prosthetic company. And there was very much a timeline we were operating on: After August 2020, I [was supposed to be] focused more on the business. There also was the question of whether my body can handle it, because triathlon is not easy on the body. So when it was postponed for another year, there was a fleeting thought of asking: “Do I really want to do this?”
Hunter Woodhall, Track and Field
Right when COVID hit and the Games were [postponed], I thought: “I can either just kind of stop and complain about everything that’s going on, or I can try to make the best of the situation.” My struggle was very come and go. This is not the first bad thing or hurdle that’s gotten in my way.
Nichole Millage, Sitting Volleyball
For me personally, 2020 was going to be my last year [as a Paralympian], and I just wanted to make the roster. I was in peak condition, and then it all just came crashing down. Now I’ve spent almost a year of not playing with my team and not playing any kind of volleyball—definitely nothing close to what we were doing last March. I’m going to be 44 years old in a couple of months. I’m not physically where I was. So all those things are scary.
Ezra Frech, Track and Field
I didn’t really wanna talk to anyone [when the Games were postponed]. It was just sort of this wave of sadness, kind of like when you go through a breakup or something like that—when the girl says, you know, “Let’s take a break.” That’s what it was like for me—the Paralympics said, “Let’s take a break.” That’s really how I felt.
And then on top of that, I was sitting at a computer for seven hours a day doing online school. I couldn’t see my friends, all this bad news was happening in the world. It was brutal. It was definitely not the best two or three weeks.
Then I looked on Instagram, and these other guys around the world were still training, still getting after it. And I was like, “What am I doing? I just wasted two weeks. What was I thinking?” And that fired me up.
Lacey Henderson, Track and Field
I spent one day driving around town trying to find community tracks that were still open that had decent [long-jump] pits, because my training track was locked. I keep a rake and shovel in my little Prius, because I’ve been turning over sand pits.
Julia Gaffney, Swimming
We have these machines that simulate a swimming motion. I also have a rowing machine, I have mini-weights and medicine balls to do some core stuff, and I’ve just been trying to find different ways to keep my fitness up. I have a wheelchair, so I might go outside and wheel to get some cardio.
My biggest fear was that Tokyo was just not gonna happen at all. At first there was a big lack of communication. No one really knew what was going on. It was extra hard because no one knew what we were training for.
Those of us at the elite athletic level are very goal-driven. When the goal of Tokyo was put on hold, training just became training—there wasn’t anything to train toward. It gets hard to motivate yourself.
LA was in and out of lockdown, and it was like this whole mess scrambling to find a place to train. This track closes, that track opens, this park is not allowing people. So we’re going from park to beach to anywhere we could find—on my street. We couldn’t find a weight room, and half the time when we found one then it got closed. The plan was constantly getting adjusted, depending on what location was open that day. Some days we’d have a training planned for 3:00, and at 2:30 we would find out: “The track just closed. Where to?” And we’d find some random patch of grass on some random place and run there just to get in the work.
[Our team has] been having virtual training camps every once in a while. Sometimes it could consist of our team nutritionist going over some stuff that she would normally go over at a regular camp. We actually did a cooking challenge every week for a while, so that was fun. There’s been a couple of times where we’ve all exercised together [over Zoom].
I think it became a blessing in disguise. The break gave me a chance to to pull away from track and take my mind off the sport. It was actually very freeing for me, because since I’ve been 14, every second of my life and every day has always been about track. So the day everything got canceled, I left to go to Austin to stay with [my girlfriend] Tara. We just started working on things and finding other things we really love. So for me, it was it was more of a blessing than anything, and I think I needed it more than I knew at the time.
I’ve almost been able to change my mind-set a little bit when it comes to training. I have more of a relaxed attitude about it. I’ve been able to spend more time with my family, and that honestly has helped. I’ve actually gotten a little bit faster. I’m seeing improvement. And I think it’s just because of that more relaxed attitude when it comes to training. You don’t give up when things don’t go as you plan. You just kind of keep pushing.
This whole pandemic stinks, but I’ve learned so much more about myself than I ever would have. It’s helped me work on bettering myself—strengthening my friendships with the people I’m closest with, becoming a better athlete. I completely immersed myself in this sport at a whole new level. I took track more seriously than I ever have before. And I was grateful to come out stronger and better able to go after my dreams.
Coming from the disabled world, it takes a long time to learn to be adaptable. You learn to adjust no matter the circumstances. Speaking as an athlete, you’re constantly forced to adapt there as well, whether to an injury or to an entire global crisis.
If we are given a gift out of all of this, it will be the gift of perspective. It can be a shock to find out that you’re not the center of the universe, and that the world wasn’t designed for you—that you have to change yourself to adapt to the environment. A lot of people haven’t had the opportunity for that to come into their lives. And now we’re all in it together. My hope is that, out of all of this, we all realize that it’s not always about us.