Backyard Pole Vault Pits, Peloton Competitions: How Olympic Athletes Got Creative With Their Lockdown Training

The coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo Games and pushed athletes to find new ways to reach peak fitness

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American shot putter Ryan Crouser had this advice while preparing for the Olympics in the chaotic, unpredictable world of the coronavirus pandemic: "Improvise and adapt." And for the world record holder that meant turning an underpass in Fayetteville, Arkansas, into a make-shift gym.

"With facilities still closed I found this concrete wall under a bridge for my medball workouts," he wrote on Instagram in August of last year with the hashtag #coronavirustraining

The unusual regimen seems to have been successful for him. In June, at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Crouser crushed a 31-year-old world record with an astonishing 23.37 meters throw that sent the ball bouncing out onto the grass. The 28-year-old broke Randy Barnes' old record as he qualified for his second Olympics.

"Really from when I started it was always a dream," he told NBC.

Top athletes everywhere improvised as he did, finding ways to train even as the Summer Olympics were postponed a year because of the pandemic. He went on to construct a shot put ring; another built a backyard pole vault runway; they ran through the streets, transformed garages into home gyms and created bubbles to compete on the basketball court. 

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The decision that the Tokyo Olympics would be delayed was made in March 2020 and over the following year, some sports events did not take place, while others were halted temporarily to continue with staggered sessions, rapid testing and few fans.

Now with the Games about to begin, athletes will find out what affect the disrupted training will have on their performances and what the uneven distribution of vaccines and COVID-19 testing across the world will mean to international sport.

Will the inequities that show up in a correlation between a country’s GDP and its medal count become even more pronounced? How many athletes will test positive for the coronavirus and have to drop out as happened to U.S. tennis player Coco Gauff, U.S. men’s beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb, Katie Lou Samuelson, a U.S. 3x3 basketball player, and Kara Eaker, an alternate on the U.S. gymnastics team. Two countries, Guinea and North Korea, have pulled out entirely.

“Not everyone's situation was the same (obviously) so some were in a better training situation than others when the pandemic required everything to change,” Traci Statler, an associate professor of Applied Sport and Performance Psychology at California State University, Fullerton, wrote in an email in June.

“Some with greater means were able to use home gyms or backyard modifications fairly effectively, but for many others, there was simply no way to replicate the training needed to maintain elite performance levels.”

Water sports athletes without access to a pool or open water would have been limited to staying fit, she noted. Six on six indoor volleyball players would have found it difficult to replicate the game outdoors while maintaining a social distance. But that decision to reschedule the Games a year after they were supposed to have been played gave coaches and others time to redesign their training programs to ensure athletes were ready to perform, said Statler, who advises on sport psychology and performance enhancement.

Paige McPherson, an Olympic taekwondo competitor from the United States, recalled being devastated when the Games were postponed even though she understood it was necessary to postpone the Summer Games for safety. As an older athlete -- she is 30 -- she knew it was likely her last chance and she had been preparing physically and mentally for the last three-month stretch, she said. Instead she needed a training regimen for a year.

"In athletics, a whole year, a whole new year, is a lifetime," she said.

In the end, she slowed down, training only once a day instead or two or three times and forgoing monthly travel that in ordinary times would have been routine, she said.

"So that little time to rest really helped us kind of go back to the basics, fine tune our skill sets and heal from our previous injuries," she said.

Her coach, Juan Miguel Moreno, has his own facility and she was able to train there with her roommate and fellow Olympian, Mexico's Briseida Acosta Balarezo. They got creative as they collected weights slowly for a full gym set.

"We did do the water jugs, the body weight, just fun things to just kind of put our minds at ease but maintain our high performance," she said.

She said she was grateful that the Games were not cancelled altogether, giving her that chance to reach the podium. But even now, only about 20% of the Japanese population are fully vaccinated and this week local governments were urged to slow their efforts because the vaccine remains in short supply in Japan. Tokyo is under a state of emergency because of a rise in new cases, much of the Japanese public opposes holding the Games and a major sponsor, Toyota, announced it would not be running ads during the competitions.

Meanwhile, about 48% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

Nicole Forrester, a former Olympian for Canada and an assistant professor in the sports media program at Ryerson University in Toronto, said this could be a year in which inequalities among countries might be even more exacerbated. India and Brazil, for example, confronted terrible surges in COVID-19.

"The training ground is not necessarily even across every country,” she said. 

That said not all athletes train in their home country, said Martin Conway, a professor in Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies. And the ones who do are able to train on Pelotons in ways that were not available in the past.

"This may be the ultimate test of their resilience," he said.

When the pandemic ended training at the University of Arkansas for U.S. pole vaulter Sandi Morris, she and her father, Harry, built a regulation pole vault pit near his home in Greenville, South Carolina. In July 2020 they hosted a competition there sanctioned by U.S. Track & Field, according to  

It took four weeks and a few thousand dollars to build, she said. 

“I’m just excited because it turned out beautiful,” she said. “The facility is awesome. The runway is super fast and smooth. My dad is obsessive about making this facility perfect.’’

Until then she had been able to do some training in a friend’s backyard in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and had weights in her garage.

“You have to have a healthy balance, between knowing what’s going on in the world, how to help, how to play your part,” she told Team USA last July. “But then you can’t be too absorbed in it where you let it affect your mental health.”

When Crouser constructed his shot circle in Fayetteville, he also put it on Instagram with the hashtag #diy. Videos of him lifting weights are accompanied by the hashtag #garagegym.

Olympians tend to be more optimistic than ordinary people, able to push through difficult moments, Forrester said. And among them, the winners show an even greater level of control over distractions, an unwavering confidence in the face of all the reasons they might doubt, she said. But mental training often gets pushed aside for the 30 to 40 hours a week of physical workouts and many athletes don’t spend a lot of time on it, Forrester said. That might change with the pandemic.

“Some athletes may use that time to work on their mental game,” she said. 

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Skateboarder Heimana Reynolds told the NBC television station on Oahu in 2009 that he wanted to compete in the Olympics, and he will get that chance as part of the sports' Olympic debut. When the pandemic closed most skate parks around the country, he skateboarded at home in Carlsbad, California.

"Since all the skate parks were closed, I was pretty much skating right here in my living room," he told NBC San Diego. "I set up this coffee table, put it right there, skated over it, skated on it, skated in my garage. I got to the point where I had a bunch of cases of vitamin water and set it up as a rail and skated on them. Somehow, it worked."

Reynolds said that the routine brought him back to the simplest elements of skating and was a “blessing in disguise.”

Statler said the athletes assuredly experienced a fair amount of anger and frustration at the beginning of the pandemic but then pivoted to focus on what they needed to do at the moment. 

“This is a prerequisite skill for any elite performer — the ability to focus on the things you are able to influence and let go of the things out of your control,” she wrote.

The global spread of the coronavirus and the decisions of the International Olympic Committee were beyond their control so instead they needed to focus on their training, their attitude, the things they could control.

“That’s what elite performers do,” she said.

Of course, the Olympic Games have been affected by world events in the past, said David Lunt, an associate professor of history, specializing in ancient Greece and the history of the Olympic games. 

“The disruptions of World War I and World War II caused cancellations of the Olympic program, and there must have surely been plenty of disappointment, he wrote. “ “Similarly, the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games by several nations famously shut the door on many hopeful competitors, and the corresponding Soviet-led boycott of 1984 must have done the same for Soviet and Eastern bloc athletes.”

The 1936 Berlin Games were problematic for Jewish and African American athletes. Those in Antwerp in 1920 and London in 1948 occurred in places devastated by war. And at the 1972 Munich Games Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinians.

The ancient Olympics were held out of order at least once at the demand of Emperor Nero and were disrupted by war on other occasions.

“But postponing the modern Games is a new and hopefully one-time event,” he said.

Watch 2021 U.S. 3x3 basketball player and former Princeton Tiger Kareem Maddox talk about quitting his job to follow his dream, in this full video of episode 5 of the My New Favorite Olympian podcast.

For some athletes, the difficulties of training during a pandemic were overwhelming. Leading up to the qualifying tournament, the four basketball players making up the U.S. 3 x 3 team had had little time to play together, said one of the team, Kareem Maddox. Other teams had more opportunities to come together for practice and tournaments, he said.

"When it got to about a month out, we gathered and we were training," said Maddox, a Princeton University graduate who played professionally in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Poland and worked as an NPR producer and "All Things Considered" host. "We had a training camp and that was okay. I think that the difference between us and lot of the other teams was that we were four players that hadn't quite played together in a professional setting, or at the highest level yet."

In the end, the chemistry was not there, and the Americans lost to the Netherlands.

"I just think we didn't get to a place where we needed to be as a team before we had this elimination game," he said.

Watch 2021 U.S. 3x3 basketball player and former Princeton Tiger Kareem Maddox talk about quitting his job to follow his dream, in this portion of episode 5 of the My New Favorite Olympian podcast.
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