Bruce and Kristi Ewen never threw away their daughter’s homemade shot put ring. After Maggie went to college at Arizona State, they tucked it in the back of their barn in St. Francis, where their home gym shares space with a tractor and a boat.
Maggie didn’t expect to use that plywood circle again. But she also didn’t expect a pandemic to shut down her training facility in Moorhead. With no other options, the reigning U.S. bronze medalist moved back home in March, dusting off her old throwing ring and doing strength workouts in the barn.
“My parents are into fitness, and they have all kinds of stuff: dumbbell sets, battle ropes, a squat rack,” Ewen said. “It’s nothing fancy, but there’s everything you need to get the job done. I’ve been really lucky throughout this whole crisis, with the level of training I’m still able to do even with everything closed down.”
Though the coronavirus outbreak has delayed the Tokyo Olympics until next summer, Minnesota athletes hoping to make the U.S. team are continuing to train. Many are in the same straits as other Americans, with their workplaces — gyms, fields, swimming pools, wrestling rooms — shuttered indefinitely.
That has forced them to figure out new ways of pursuing their Summer Games dreams. Wrestler Pat Smith of Chaska is working out in his garage. Kyra Condie, a climber from Shoreview, built a climbing wall in her attic. Rower Kate Roach of North Oaks moved from her New Jersey training center to California, where there are fewer restrictions.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee released guidelines last week to help athletes slowly return to normal training conditions in the months ahead. Until then, Ewen will stay in St. Francis, lifting in a barn and throwing from a circle made of scrap wood.
“Everyone is figuring out how to transition,” she said. “That’s all you can do right now.”
A better setup than most
Before the pandemic hit, Ewen was training with coach Kyle Long at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Long, the school’s throws coach, is Ewen’s boyfriend and moved with her to St. Francis.
She feels lucky in that regard, too. Since stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols went into effect, many athletes have been able to work with their coaches only through video conferencing. Not all of them have the same access to training venues, either, because coronavirus-related restrictions vary from state to state.
Roach, who is pursuing a spot in the women’s quad for the Tokyo Olympics, usually is based at US Rowing’s training center in Princeton, N.J. The stay-at-home rules New Jersey adopted in March stopped them from taking boats out on the water. Faced with the prospect of rowing only on a machine, she made a snap decision to move to California’s Bay Area, where she can train in a one-person boat among kayakers and paddleboarders.
“I’m still in touch with my coaches and teammates on the phone and by e-mail,” said Roach, who placed seventh in the quad at last year’s world championships. “But I’m a little bit lucky. I think I’m one of the few [team members] able to be on the water right now, which is a pretty big asset.”
In Minnesota, too, facilities closures have limited what athletes can do. Swimmer Regan Smith has had to focus on dryland workouts, including running and strength training. Even being out of the water for a few days makes a difference; when she gets back in, she said, “it feels like you’re swimming through Jell-O.”
Pat Smith, a former Gophers wrestler, is still doing gut-busting runs on a staircase near the Mississippi River and up a hill in a north Minneapolis park. But he has a long wait before he can grapple with an opponent again. Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, chief medical officer for the USOPC, said close-contact sports such as wrestling will be among the last to resume, because of the high likelihood of contagion.
A Greco-Roman specialist, Smith has found inventive ways to practice wrestling moves in the mini-gym in his Lauderdale garage. He uses long resistance bands and a heavy, horseshoe-shaped “Bulgarian bag” to mimic an opponent’s weight and strength.
It helps, Smith said, to envision every run, lift and push as a competition in itself. He also uses his imagination. When he’s gasping for breath during his fourth trip up the hill, he pictures himself feeling that kind of exhaustion at the end of a close match, then fighting through it to score.
“Some of the things probably look pretty funny to the neighbors,” said Smith, who competed at last fall’s world championships. “In my driveway, I’ll get in my stance and move around for three minutes at a time, visualizing a match. With the resistance bands, you can do motions like ducking under a guy and simulating reaching around the body, and the bag lets you simulate lifting a body up.
“It’s hard. I’ve never been in this situation before. But with all the changes, the goal is to keep your mind-set the same. Instead of worrying about when you can get back on the mat, just do what you can every day.”
Hitting lots of walls
Condie is among a handful of athletes already named to the U.S. team for Tokyo. In her sport, athletes have to be nimble and solve problems on the fly — qualities that came in handy when her climbing gym closed.
She already had a hangboard, which allows her to strengthen her fingers, above a doorway in her Salt Lake City condo. Her attic gave her a canvas for a much larger project. Condie attached sheets of plywood to the underside of the roof, which sits at a 55-degree angle, then studded her makeshift wall with climbing holds she owned or had borrowed.
The padding on the floor gives her a soft landing when she falls, but it doesn’t muffle sound very well. When a neighbor complained that the noise was bothering her husband, who is working from home, Condie explained that she’s working from home, too.
“Home walls are popping up everywhere,” she said. “For me, it’s making a huge difference.”
The USOPC’s return-to-training guidelines outline a four-phase process, with a set of precautions athletes should take during each step. There is no timeline. All U.S. Olympic sports have suspended competition, and few have announced new time frames for national championships or other events.
Even for athletes with good home training setups, Condie said it can be hard to stay motivated. Athletes have no competitions to target, and few or no workout partners. The Olympics, now set for July 2021, feel very far away.
As strange as they are, Pat Smith believes these unprecedented times also present an opportunity.
“At this level, you have to take ownership of your own path,” he said. “It’s a hard situation, with a lot of uncertainty. But you can’t let this time go to waste. There’s too much to do.”