On track: Local athletes continue to pursue their Olympic dreams

High jumper Brenton Foster graduated from UVA this month, but plans to continue his training through next year in hopes of making it to the Olympics. PC: Subject High jumper Brenton Foster graduated from UVA this month, but plans to continue his training through next year in hopes of making it to the Olympics. PC: Subject

By Claudia Gohn

The postponement of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo (moved to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic) has disrupted the plans of athletes around the world—including several right here in Charlottesville.   

Ella Nelson, a University of Virginia swimmer and rising second-year, is one of many UVA athletes who were competing for a spot on the Olympic team. With pools closed, she hasn’t swum in over a month—something she has never done before. “This is a first—the most time I’ve taken off is probably two or three weeks, and that even felt like a pretty long time at the time.”

Nelson placed second in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in both the 200-yard breaststroke and 400-yard individual medley, and was seeded second in the 200 breaststroke going into the NCAA championship. (In the United States, the top two swimmers in each event at the Olympic qualifying meet go to the Olympics.) Although these were collegiate-only meets, Nelson and her coach, Todd DeSorbo, were hopeful.

But the timeline for their goals shifted in March, after the NCAA championships were canceled and Olympic qualifying events were postponed along with the games. Pools are closed, training facilities aren’t open, and the stay-at-home order prevents athletes from training together. Nonetheless, everyone is keeping their eyes on the prize. 

Athletes have had to find alternative ways to stay in shape. Paige Madden—a rising fourth-year swimmer and ACC champion in the 1,650-, 500-, and 200-yard freestyle, who was seeded second going into the NCAA championships in the 500 freestyle—is doing what she can without a pool. Rather than swimming, she’s been doing interval running and strength training, with guidance from her coaches.

“We get sent workouts every day through email, like suggested workouts,” she says. “So I try to stick to those [because] I like direction and instruction.” (Her pool back home in Alabama has since reopened.)

According to NCAA guidelines, coaches are currently prohibited from requiring athletes to train, but are allowed to send suggestions. DeSorbo, the head swimming and diving coach at UVA, sends ideas for strength training, running, and biking. But DeSorbo also focuses on “staying connected to them and keeping them all connected to each other,” he says.

“Our goal has just been to…communicate a lot, just keep in touch, check in and see how they’re doing,” DeSorbo adds.

Vin Lananna, the head track and field coach at UVA, has similar intentions. “We’re trying to keep our athletes motivated [and] excited, but we aren’t training them,” he says. “Most importantly, we want to make sure every student-athlete is safe, families are safe.”

In interviews with five Olympic hopefuls, all said they are planning to continue training and hold onto the goal of making it to the games.

Alum Kristin O’Brien, who rowed for the UVA women’s team before graduating in 2013, was hoping to punch her ticket to Tokyo this summer, and had won the women’s two in the National Section Regatta in February.

After hearing that the Olympics were postponed, O’Brien’s former UVA coach, Kevin Sauer, reached out to her. “He said ‘Hey O’B, how are you doing? What are you going to do?’” she says. “I said, ‘well, I’m going to keep going. I made it this far.’”

Kristin O’Brien refuses to let the postponed Tokyo Olympics deter her from her dream of making the U.S. rowing team. PC: US Rowing

Madden was originally going to end her swimming career after her final collegiate season next winter, but now she wants to continue through graduation in 2021, in the hopes of swimming in Tokyo next summer. That will also impact her post-graduation plans to prepare for a career as a physician’s assistant. “I was planning on taking the GRE next summer and finding some sort of job in health care,” she says. But, she adds, “I was definitely planning on taking a gap year regardless, before PA school, so that’s good that it provides me some flexibility.”

Brenton Foster, a high jumper on the UVA track and field team who graduated this month, says he plans to continue his training through next year while working towards his masters in education. He was in Australia trying to make the Olympic team there when he found out that the games were postponed.

Despite the temporary hold placed on international competition, some athletes are choosing to look on the bright side.

Katherine Douglass—a rising second-year swimmer who captured first in the 200-yard individual medley and 100-yard butterfly at the ACC championships, and was seeded first going into the NCAA championships in the 200 individual medley—says she will be able to focus more on the Olympic trials during her training next year.

“This year I wasn’t really focusing on the Olympics very much until the end of the season, when I started to think I could place very well at Olympic trials,” she says. “So now, going into next year, I think I have more of the correct mindset going into it and I can focus more of my energy on Olympic trials throughout the whole year.”

While Douglass is stressed about being out of the water, she is also excited. “The first couple months of training are probably going to be very difficult for all of us,” she says. “But it’s just more motivation to work hard, and I’m excited to get back into it.”

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