TO OUR READERS: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Sign up for our daily or breaking newsletters to stay informed. Please support local journalism by subscribing to The Providence Journal.
It didn’t take long for Elizabeth Beisel to react to the news that the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo have been postponed.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Rhode Island’s Olympic lady. “The athletes finally have clarity and an answer, but it is also a major blow to a lot of people who’ve geared their lives around competing this summer.”
Beisel has lived the Olympian life for the last dozen years. She first swam onto an Olympic team as a precocious 15-year-old, the North Kingstown kid with the big smile and talent that burst through the TV screen. An unfathomable career in the pool followed, complete with a World Championship in 2011, Olympic silver and bronze medals in London in 2012 and a magical third Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Suffice to say, the 27-year-old Beisel knows what American swimming stars Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel are going through. The same goes for the gymnasts, fencers, sprinters and every other world-class athlete affected by Tuesday’s unprecedented decision by the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government to postpone the Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a fairly obvious conclusion. Regardless of how quickly the pandemic improves, Beisel points out that any semblance of social distancing and the Olympics aren’t dance partners. The athletes live in tight quarters, eat off of communal buffets and share bus shuttles for three busy weeks. Add in the international travel of athletes, coaches and millions of fans and the world is clearly not ready for such a communal experience this summer.
“It’s really not possible, but I think we’ve been thinking that for a few weeks now,” Beisel said. “Now that they’ve made the decision to postpone, that opens up a whole different set of challenges.”
Here’s where Beisel can offer unique insight. She says the final three months before an Olympics are unlike any other. Everything you eat, how much you sleep, how often you’re in the pool is watched like a hawk by U.S. Swimming officials.
“In the last three months, the hay is in the barn, right, but now it’s the little things you’re working on,” she said. “Those things can give you that half-second that decides if you make an Olympic team or the difference between medaling and coming in eighth.”
Then there is the drug-testing issue. A world-class swimmer like Beisel was subject to drug testing for virtually every week between 2008 and 2016. She’d have to check in via computer when she was hanging out with friends at the University of Florida or even relaxing with her parents during those rare summer weekends in North Kingstown.
Now that the Olympics are delayed and drug testers are obeying coronavirus limitations and not allowed to travel, what happens?
“Drug testing ramps up for more athletes closer to an Olympics,” she said, “but antidoping is shutting down. That opens a window for getting away with things and all you want at a World Championship or an Olympics is for things to be fair. It’s a unique time.”
The unfortunate part of the Olympics postponement for Beisel is about friendships. She’s retired from swimming now but has begun a career as a TV analyst and knows where everyone’s Olympic dream lives.
One colleague is Ryan Lochte, 35, a six-time gold medalist who was training for a spot on the U.S. Swimming team in a fifth Olympics. “I’m not getting any younger. It’s going to be hard,” Lochte told NBC’s “Today” show. “There is no swimming for me. Right now, I’m bench-pressing my kids. Long walks with the family and a lot of cleaning the house — that is my workout right now.”
Beisel said she can see the window closing for many athletes between now and next summer, or whenever the Games are rescheduled.
“It’s bitter because you put so much work in to peak in July of 2020 and now to wait a whole year — well in the life of an athlete, a year can change everything,” she said. “There is always a new 18-year-old coming along.”
Most Olympic windows are short. Beisel’s lasted for a little more than a decade before she retired from swimming in 2017. Facing the end wasn’t easy and she’s written a book, “Silver Lining,” about that challenge and her fabulous career. Without swimming, she’s returned to an old love, the violin. That’s helped her face a new world, one without the world-class competition that many other Olympic athletes have just seen disappear from their lives for good.
“The violin was my first love. I was 3 when I started,” she said. “I remember, I think I was 9, and someone asked me would I rather play violin in the Boston Pops or swim in the Olympics. I really couldn’t answer that then but I’m awfully happy with the way things turned out.”
On Twitter: @KevinMcNamara33