Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m Trying to Make Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics

A face mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries" is held between two hands over an image of people running a race.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ZamoraA/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

As a professional athlete in an Olympic sport, I tend to plan my life in four-year segments. Now, I’m attempting to qualify for the upcoming Tokyo games in August in the midst of the new coronavirus outbreak.

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The coronavirus hasn’t yet hit the U.S. as hard as some other countries, but there have been cancellations to quite a few track and road race events all over the world just in the past week. The Tokyo Marathon, one of the six major marathons (the most high-profile big-city marathons, which are part of a championship-style points system for the athletes, somewhat similar to a Grand Slam in tennis), canceled the masses portion of the event. But it kept the elite competition, which is important for World Marathon Majors rankings, Olympic qualifying, and year-end ranks for a lot of the professional runners. Other marathons in Europe meant to happen in the next few weeks have been entirely canceled. As I map out my next four months, I have to keep my race calendar flexible. That’s daunting, because so much of high-level athletics comes down to scheduling and preparation.

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I feel lucky that it was possible to hold the recent U.S. Olympic marathon trials at the end of February without restrictions, travel bans, or flight delays. At the trials, three men and three women are selected to represent Team USA from nearly 700 runners. I did basically bless myself in Purell as I slotted into my middle seat on the four-hour flight from Phoenix to Atlanta. I also had to race on some shoes with maybe 100 more miles on them than I’d have liked, as the fresh pair of Saucony flats I ordered a few months ago were coming directly from the factory in China and production had already been shut down when I tried to do my usual pre-race order about five weeks out.

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There was an interview with a senior member of the International Olympic Committee a few days before our marathon trials race regarding the coronavirus’s potential threat to a global gathering like the Olympics. He said the committee needs to see how things progress in the next two to three months, but that it would likely be canceled rather than postponed if action was needed.

At the marathon trials, where I battled more than 400 women through a hilly, wind-swept 26.2-mile day, I had to push that out of my mind and assume that, should I earn one of the three spots, things would be OK by August. I tried to think back on how Zika ended up not affecting the Rio Games as much as the news hype implied it would. However, only a few weeks ago, an entire world championship was delayed for a year. This was the World Indoor Track and Field Championship, meant to be held in Nanjing, China. I wasn’t running the indoor season this year, and I understand why the decision had to be made, but I know many athletes had peaked their season to try to earn a medal there, a rare achievement that can have many positive ripple effects on an athlete’s career. Hopefully they can regain that form again next season, but in sports that can be like catching lightning in a bottle.

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I didn’t make the marathon team, so now I’m in track season and hoping for another shot to qualify for my third Olympics in June at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Apart from the fact that the Olympics are a lifelong dream for most athletes, under many professional sponsorship contracts, there are cash bonuses for making Olympic teams or even salary reductions for failing to make teams. I wonder how a cancellation would affect those clauses.

I’m currently at a training camp in Arizona. I hope I’ll be able to fly home to Rhode Island and then back across the country to the altitude camp back in Arizona as planned in a few weeks. It’s not as challenging to keep plans flexible for shorter races because you can relatively easily find a track meet somewhere and the training preparation isn’t as long, so the races I chose are easier to add or drop from the schedule.

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The uncertainty makes things trickier if I decide to put another marathon on the schedule for the fall as I plan my post-summer (and hopefully post-Olympics) racing schedule. The marathons require a lot of long-term planning and a three- to four-month buildup. If one is canceled on short notice, it’s difficult to find another one of equal size and timing, and financially there is uncertainty with how any potential appearance fees the professional runners receive would be handled. (Some races would pay out a percentage of appearance fees for rare events like a weather cancellation, but I’m unsure how things would work knowing about coronavirus-induced uncertainty as the athletes are signing the contracts.) I can really only fit about two marathons a year into the plan, as the training takes many months and then the recovery is another month, so the financial gains from a race well run are a large percentage of yearly income. Fortunately I have great support from my sponsors, so I don’t rely completely on race winnings, but not everyone is in that scenario.

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I’m used to a healthy amount of uncertainty. Planning a year around whether I qualify for highly competitive team spots requires having a few scenarios mapped out. But this is different. How things go with the coronavirus in the next few weeks here in the U.S. will determine how much we can travel and race. As long as I can go to a nearby trail or track and train, I’m happy enough, and I understand sports are low on the triage list during states of emergency. Still, it would be a massive shame to see the Olympics not occur at all, especially for the younger athletes who haven’t experienced it yet—and with four years to wait, you never know if you’ll be that fit, healthy, and ready again. For now I’m relying on my well-honed athlete’s skill of putting blinders on and training through whatever is going on around me—visualizing it all working out but knowing there is no guarantee.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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