Tori Dixon had begun to feel it was inevitable. With the sporting world essentially shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, and a rising chorus of voices pushing for the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed, the Burnsville native had started to accept the fact that her Summer Games dream might be deferred.
She was still holding out hope, though, when she woke up Tuesday morning.
“Then I saw my phone was blowing up,’’ said Dixon, a member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team and a former Gopher. “And I read the news.
“Everyone had a million questions, but I was still trying to process what was going on. It was like a bomb dropped, and you just had to pick up the pieces.”
To Dixon and other Minnesotans striving toward the Tokyo Games, there was some relief in Tuesday’s announcement that the Olympics and Paralympics will be moved to 2021. Canceled qualifiers, closed practice venues and upended schedules had put athletes’ lives on hold, leaving many unable to train and worried about their readiness. Some feared the Summer Games would be scrapped.
But the postponement also raises new questions. A new date hasn’t been announced, and with the coronavirus still spreading, it’s uncertain how qualifying will be affected or when athletes can resume training and competing. While some athletes will continue with business as usual, others could find their moment has passed.
Greco-Roman wrestler Pat Smith is among those who believe postponement was the right decision, for athletes and for a world that remains in the grip of a public health crisis. The 2020 Olympics will still happen, he said. Just not this summer.
“If I start thinking how unfair this is, that’s not going to make me a better wrestler,’’ said Smith, a former Gopher from Chaska. “It’s a cop out to let the circumstances define the whole thing, and I don’t want to do that.
“It is hard. But I can’t control the circumstances, and I’d rather look at it in a positive way. I have to get myself ready to give myself the best chance, whenever the Olympics happen.’’
Extra year to prepare
Gymnast Suni Lee of St. Paul and swimmer Regan Smith of Lakeville were predicted to be big stars in Tokyo. Both were disappointed by the postponement, but ready to move on.
Coach Jess Graba said little will change for Lee. A high school junior, she already was planning to keep training after Tokyo, with an eye toward the 2021 world championships. She is looking at the coming year as a “redo,’’ a chance to restart her Olympic preparations as a more seasoned gymnast.
“It’s hard, but I know my goal,” said Lee, who won three medals at last year’s world championships. “I was looking forward to working toward the 2020 Olympics. Now it’s not going to happen. I just have to keep doing the same training plan and get ready for 2021.”
Things are slightly more complicated for Smith. A perfect plan — graduate from high school in June, swim at the Olympics in July, start college at Stanford in August — has evaporated, forcing her to make choices.
Like many athletes, she is grateful the International Olympic Committee didn’t wait any longer to announce its decision. That gives her more time to think about deferring college for a year to continue Olympic preparations with her club coaches, and to get stronger and faster.
“I’ve been preparing for [the postponement] for a week and a half,” said Smith, a two-time world champ and the world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes. “This puts a little bump in the road, but we’ll figure it out.”
Kyra Condie of Shoreview is among the small number of U.S. athletes already named to the Olympic team. A climber, she was set to compete in her sport’s Summer Games debut.
Though three Olympics were canceled during the first and second world wars, the Games never have been postponed. That leaves a flood of unanswered questions, including whether those who already have qualified will keep their places. Condie said she expects the U.S. team to remain intact and to compete as planned.
“I feel pretty confident in that, though it’s my one worry right now,’’ Condie said. “A year from now is a long time. It’s not what I originally planned. But in the grand scheme, it could be a good thing, with more time to train and prepare.”
More time, more expenses
Pat Smith competed in one of the last Olympic qualifiers to be held before the sports world stopped, March 13-15 in Ottawa. After winning the bronze medal at 77 kilograms, he felt grateful to get out of Canada two days before the border closed.
With his training sites shut down, he’s been cross-training at home. Now that the Olympics have been pushed back a year, he will alter his short-term training plan to try to add muscle, and forge ahead.
“Last week, we were still thinking we might have to be ready to compete in a couple months,’’ said Smith, 29. “People had to get creative with their training. This takes the pressure off.”
Another year of full-time training, though, means another year of expenses. Smith has patched together a living for the past six years, a stretch that will be prolonged before he gets another shot at the Olympics.
He has a part-time job in marketing, and he coaches at Pinnacle Wrestling School. His club, Minnesota Storm, pays a stipend and funds some training costs; he’s also currently getting money from USA Wrestling, which pays a stipend to the top-ranked athlete in each weight class. He’s even made T-shirts to sell to supporters.
Smith said USA Wrestling has committed to supporting its athletes for the time being, but he isn’t entirely sure how to fund another year of training, especially with the economic downturn generated by the pandemic. Chuck Aoki, a Minneapolis native with two Paralympic medals in wheelchair rugby, said many athletes will face that issue.
“I’m able to piece it together with a lot of things I’m doing, but it will be challenging,” said Aoki, who will keep training toward 2021. “That extra year that people weren’t anticipating is going to make it tougher. The [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] has always been good at getting the resources we need, but this year is so different.”
Dixon, too, will push on to 2021. It’s been a long wait already; she tore a knee ligament in 2016, missing a chance to compete at the Rio Games, and has been looking forward to Tokyo since then.
“If it had been canceled, I’d be crushed,” she said. “But athletes are trained to deal with adversity. It’s like, ‘OK. One more year of training.’ The dream is still there. It’s just put off for a little bit.”