How 3 Olympic, Paralympic athletes adapted their training to the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, putting the dreams of over 10,000 Olympic hopefuls on pause.

7/26/2021 6:19:00 AM

Up until last year, the Olympic games had never been postponed for any other reason than a world war. Then the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, putting the dreams of over 10,000 Olympic hopefuls on pause.

The coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, putting the dreams of over 10,000 Olympic hopefuls on pause.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty ImagesThe logo of Tokyo 2020 is displayed near Odaiba Seaside Park in Tokyo, July 7, 2021.After a year of extraordinary planning, theTokyo Olympics will be differentthan any other Olympics Games before it: As the worldwide vaccination effort against COVID-19 continues, all spectators will be banned from attending the Games, the athletes will be isolated from one another, and all coaches, trainers and participants will be tested rigorously for COVID-19.

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After going through what they called unprecedented training, three athletes spoke to ABC News about what it took for them to get to the Olympic stage while a global pandemic ravaged the world.LILLY KING, USA SWIMMINGTwo-time Olympic gold medalist Lilly King was a breakout star at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in 2016 when she won first place in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke. When she heard the postponement news, King said she was at home training in Evansville, Indiana -- it was just one of many training sessions she’d had over the previous months. Yet still, she said the reality of the situation didn’t sink in until some time later.

Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS via Getty Images, FILEGold medalist Lillia King of the USA at an award ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke event at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.“I heard the Olympics were postponed and I didn't really know what to think. I'm kind of … a serial under-reactor,” King told ABC News. “[Five months later], my mom actually got my Olympic flag framed from 2016… I saw the flag and that was kind of the moment, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we're not going right now. This is not fun.’”

“[I had] my little meltdown that I had been waiting to have for five months… I got it out eventually and I think that was good,” she added.In April 2020, King was forced to adapt her training routine to a world in which pools were closed due to COVID-19.

“I was sitting at home one day and my coach called me and said, ’Do you have a wetsuit?’” King said. She told him she didn’t. “He said, ‘Well, you better get one because we're gonna swim in a pond.’ It was probably mid-April, but we started swimming in the pond in Indiana. It was freezing.”

MORE: COVID-19 rules at the Tokyo Olympics: Spectators banned, vaccination not requiredKing said she and her teammates bonded over the brutally cold days in the pond and the long drives across the state to access the few pools that had begun to reopen.

“If one of us came to practice with a bad attitude one day, it would ruin the rest of it for the other nine of us. … You had to be really conscious about what you were saying out loud, or what you were thinking, because it was very noticeable to the people we were training with since we are a small group,” said King.

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King said that with her previous Olympics experience, she has looked forward to the Tokyo Games as a chance to step into a role as a leader and mentor to her teammates, many of whom are young.Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesLilly King of the United States competes in the Women's 200m breaststroke final during Day Six of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center, June 18, 2021, in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Having a long career in this sport is just having a good outlook and a good attitude about things and that's what I tried to do,” said King. “It is the Olympics, but in the end it's just another swim meet. Hopefully that'll be helpful to those younger athletes and I know that would have been very helpful advice to me whenI was in their shoes.”

Hungry to compete, King said that the yearlong wait will only make competing at the Olympic Games that much sweeter.“We still have an incredible team here and they're ready to compete and ready to go,” said King. “Hopefully I can be that mentor that I had to those younger kids on the team and just come out and swim fast and have fun.”

MARIAH DURAN, USA SKATEBOARDINGIn March 2019, professional skateboarder Mariah Duran was named one of 16 inaugural members comprising the USA Skateboarding National Team in the first Olympics Games to ever feature the sport.Two years later, she is the leading female skateboarder in the U.S. and will compete against 26 nations in her Olympic debut.

Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images, FILEUS skateboarder Mariah Duran competes in the Street League Skateboarding championship semifinal in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sept. 21, 2019.“It was big to just be a part of [the Olympics] and work towards something and to have that extra goal set in front of me as a skater,” said Duran.

“It's going to make the conversation for younger girls who want to pick up a board, their parents might be more down to let them do it,” she added.MORE: Stick to sports? Here's what could happen to Olympians who protest at Tokyo GamesAfter a whirlwind 2019 during which she competed in qualification rounds and traveled, Duran said she used the extra time from postponement to reconnect with her love for skating.

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“[This year], I would have to say I really fell in love with skateboarding even more, and that aspect of when all this other noise is canceled, I still love skating and I would do it regardless of whether the Olympics happened or not,” Duran told ABC News. “I've been skating for about 14 years. So all those other years, I was just doing it because I love doing it.”

Duran, who is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said she used the city as a training ground by finding outdoor parks, stairs, ledges and other obstacles in town.“I just want longevity in the sport. So what can I do to create that? I was able to get two trainers [to focus my training] and we would do Zoom calls. … I would have [the weekend] just to myself and skate all day if I wanted to,” she said.

Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMariah Duran speaks during United States Olympic Skateboarding Team Announcement at L.A. LIVE, June 21, 2021, in Los Angeles.Along with practicing yoga regularly to help with her flexibility, Duran said she also used the postponement to slow down and focus on mental training, including being present in the moment.

“When you're competing at such a high level, or you're pushing yourself to do such an extreme [trick]... getting in tune with your mental space is so important because once you can control that. You can control the outcome if you know the position you put yourself in.”

Duran said she hopes that the game’s global spotlight on skateboarding will inspire other people, especially women, to get involved in the sport and continue to push their limits.“Skating is so empowering and amazing that, when you step on a board, you don't feel like a girl or a boy. At that point, you're just a skater,” said Duran. “I really hope that people just look into the sport a little bit more and it sheds a light and it helps grow the sport.”

DAVID BROWN, USA PARALYMPIC TRACK & FIELDTwo-time Paralympian David Brown runs in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint alongside a sighted guide in the T11 sports class, which includes all athletes who have a visual field of less than 10 degrees diameter. Brown said the past year has helped him to grow more in tune with his own body as an individual runner — one who doesn't necessarily need help.

Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images, FILEGold medalist David Brown celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Sept. 11, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.“What inspired me to actually start running was me starting to go blind when I was 6-years-old. … I started being able to just run fast,” Brown told ABC News. “Even though I am blind, I'm not going to let you take advantage of me. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to work for it and it doesn’t matter if I can see or not.”

Since 2014, Brown has held the world record as the fastest totally blind athlete in the world.Brown, who began competing in the Paralympics in 2012 and secured a gold medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games, said that the extra time that he spent training last year gave him the chance to better understand his muscles, timing and pace.

MORE: Sha'Carri Richardson's Olympic suspension turns to heated debate on cannabisBrown said that training by himself allowed him to focus inward and find his own step rather than sync his stride to another person’s.“I've been running for some years now, but I never knew the technicality of sprinting. … Especially when it comes to running with someone else,” said Brown. “Sometimes, not knowing what to do or how to do certain things, you end up molding yourself to the runner that you're running with.”

Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesDavid Brown of the United States and guide Moray Stewart compete in the Men's 100 Meter Dash T11 Ambulatory final during the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Trials at Breck High School, June 19, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“I don't know how to walk in a straight line or let alone run in a straight line, but I was able to learn,” he added.The extra time also allowed Brown to realize his athletic potential.“It's odd for me to say this but for the postponement … It was a blessing overall for me because I was able to find myself as an athlete [after] being tethered to somebody all the time,” said Brown. “I was able to train as an individual, I was able to pretty much untether myself from my guide and find myself as an individual runner.”

The Paralympic games begin on Aug. 24, 2021 in Tokyo. In a year filled with novel protocols and critical improvisions, Brown said he’s ready for whatever happens.“At the end of the day, we're not going to leave anything on the table,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I made it here, I made it this far, which is a huge blessing and a huge accomplishment in itself.”

Brown said his goal is to inspire future athletes to test the limits of their own abilities. Read more: ABC News »

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