The Postponement of a Dream
Cal State East Bay Assistant Swim Coach, Alumna Claire Beaty among thousands of elite athletes now grappling with Tokyo Olympics postponement
Claire Beaty wasn’t quite ready to hang up her goggles. The Cal State East Bay swimmer and graduate student once considered retiring from the sport in 2018, but only briefly. She'd had a successful career. In recent years she was named All-American five times, held two school records, and hadn’t spent more than a month out of the water since she first jumped into the sport competitively at 9-years-old.
Beaty, who was set to compete in the 2020 Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska in June, has now spent almost five weeks out of the water. She is joined by thousands of other Olympic hopefuls who have had to wrap their heads around the March announcement that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed until July 2021 due to COVID-19.
“We’d already been out of the pool for two weeks, and everyone had the inkling something was coming, but it was still big news and definitely not what you want to hear,” Beaty said. “Everyone is upset, but you can’t risk peoples’ lives and health for games, even the Olympic games.”
A Life of Resilience
In her 23 years, Beaty has had her fair share of big news nobody wants to hear.
As a senior in high school, the swimmer lost her father, and a few years later, as a junior at East Bay, her mother died as well.
Through it all, Beaty continued swimming.
“Sometimes in life, you don’t think you can do things, but all of a sudden, you’re faced with it, and you have to,” she said.
That sort of mindset is crucial for athletes, especially at the Olympic level, CSUEB Professor of Kinesiology Dr. Jeff Simons, said. Simons, who has worked as a sports psychologist and trained elite athletes for every summer Olympics since the 1980s, said while many athletes are resilient — bouncing back from devastating losses or injuries all the time — this blow may feel particularly painful.
“For some sports like gymnastics, they have a very narrow window of being able to compete at [the Olympic] level,” Simons said. “For virtually everybody who isn’t an absolute superstar, this news can range from ‘OMG, this is brilliant, I have another year’ to ‘I barely made it this time, and I don’t know if I’ll luck out again.’ You’ve got this huge variation with what’s happening in each person’s life; there’s no one way they’re feeling.”
Add to that, a training regime that is often planned down to the hour of the big day. Coaches and athletes preparing for the Olympic Games have planned out their training — from tapers to peaks, to the types of qualifying events they’ll attend — for years.
“This is a huge disruption, and the very first thing that happens to human beings when there’s a disruption is it throws everything into confusion, all that certainty you were having becomes unpredictable and ambiguous,” Simons said. “Human beings like certainty and performers in particular really like certainty. We don’t like disruption, and the biggest thing we feel when it happens is a sense of loss of control.”
And while age may be a factor for some, others may not be able to afford to keep training. Although some countries pay stipends to their athletes for competing in the Games, that is not the norm, which means another year of paying for everything from equipment to trainers, coaches and physical therapists.
Beaty, who graduates from Cal State East Bay in December, but is also currently employed at the university as an assistant swim coach and operations intern for the Athletics Department, said she recognizes the privilege she has this year to keep training. Plus, she said, preparation for the Olympics has in some ways been more fun than training during her years as a Pioneer.
“As a college athlete, it’s not always fun, this has been more of doing and focusing on what I wanted to be doing, and I feel a larger internal motivation,” she said. “I’m in a position to [keep training], I’ll be staying here a little longer than I intended to but right now, I don’t see anything else that’s drawing me away.”
A New Kind of Training
With pools shuttered and mandatory shelter-in-place orders in effect through May, one of Beaty’s first conversations after the Tokyo announcement was with her coach Shane Pelton about to pivot her training.
Together they settled on a combination of running and resistance training. And while she’s felt herself growing stronger and enjoying hitting her stride similar to how she feels when swimming, Beaty said it’s not the same.
“The motivation is kind of weird,” she said. “With the previous breaks, you want to relax, but this break is a forced break, so I’m still trying to stay in shape.”
Beaty is not alone in having to now find different ways to train.
Simons said he’s heard from many athletes who are training in their backyards, on treadmills in basements, or just about however they can.
“For some sports, it’s really easy to go off by yourself and practice, but for others, like team sports, it’s not,” Simons said. “You have to try to stay fit, watch videos, do lots of imagery work, use this time to work through what-if scenarios.”
Focusing on the ‘Now’
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So how should an athlete navigate the next few weeks or even months?
First, Simons said, is to step back and recognize that there may be stages to processing, similar to the well-known stages of grief.
“Have a cry, talk about what you’re worried about and then figure out ‘now what do we do,’” Simons said. “Think about what you need to do today, and even though you have a long-term goal, look honestly at where you are now and how you can find short-term balance.”
And, remember perspective.
“Take a breath and realize, we are taking care of each other, not worrying more about lap splits than humanity,” he said.
Next up — staying focused on the ‘now.’
“It’s important to get away from all the non-answerable questions like ‘why this happened, why me, is this punishment for something,’” Simons said. “If you’re going to move forward, you have to get beyond that, beyond the fantasies of what could have been, beyond the denial, the stages of grief, you’ve got to get through it. The solution always is, turning to where you are right now, what can be done right now.”
As for Beaty, she’s still hopeful an Olympic Games are in her future. So for now, she’ll keep training on land.
“I just want to see it all the way through; you can’t give up when you’re that close,” she said.
And to all the athletes (and even those who aren’t training for the Olympic Games), Simons offers a final piece of advice.
“We become so much more resilient when we can embrace what is now and how we can move forward,” Simons said. “Resilience is not about bad things not happening, but what we can do in the face of the bad. ”