Due to the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games until next summer, Olympic hopefuls worldwide have had their lives and careers turned upside-down. Both sophomore swimmer Kate Douglass and senior swimmer Paige Madden were looking forward to competing for a spot to represent the United States at the Games this summer, but are now looking to use the extra year to prepare for 2021.
“Another year of training at U.Va. is only going to help me get stronger and faster, so it's not a bad thing,” Douglass said.
The Olympics were postponed in light of the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on athletes’ lives and their ability to prepare for the event as well as to safeguard the health of everyone involved in organizing the event.
“I am confident that, working together with the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government and all our stakeholders, we can master this unprecedented challenge,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
The event has been rescheduled for next summer in Tokyo, and it is slated to begin July 23, 2021 — almost a year later than its original start date.
This postponement means that many college athletes — whose lives were already upended by the cancellation of virtually all sports last spring — must now adapt to yet another change. Madden and Douglass, who were both in the midst of preparing for the NCAA championships when their season was canceled last March, were part of these groups.
Despite the season being cut short, Douglass certainly made her mark last year — the swimmer posted three all-time individual school records in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter medley, as well as a record in the 200-meter medley relay.
Earlier this year, Coach Todd Desorbo said that he thinks Douglass has “Olympic-level” potential and noted that the swimmer could also be an NCAA champion by the time her collegiate career is up.
“[Douglass] is also the most versatile swimmer I have ever worked with — she can swim pretty much everything,” Coach Todd DeSorbo said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily in March. “If she wanted [to] and had the opportunity [to], she could likely be on the U.Va. top-10 all-time list in every single event.”
Douglass’ Olympic experience includes competing with the 2018-2019 U.S. Junior National Team at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, and she also qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in four events — the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke, the 50-meter freestyle and the 200-meter individual medley.
Madden, who also qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, has had a highly successful career at Virginia so far. Just this year, she was named the 2020 ACC Swimmer of the Year, Co-ACC Scholar Athlete of the Year and won three individual titles and two relay titles at the ACC championships.
Both athletes’ opportunity to win a national championship, however, was lost last March when all sports were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was just heartbreaking to see everyone so upset about losing our chance to show off all the hard work we had done that entire year,” Douglass said. “I was really sad for our fourth and fifth years whose swimming careers had just ended. I can’t even imagine how that would have felt.”
Madden echoes similar sentiments, but also noted that at the time she found out, the ACC had been the only conference to officially cancel its season. Because of that, Madden said it felt like she and her teammates were being robbed of an opportunity that others would have. Ultimately, however, the NCAA canceled all championship events for winter and spring sports.
While Madden said that it was disappointing to lose the chance to win what could have been the team’s first national championship, she noted that she — and her teammates — eventually saw the bright side of the situation.
“We came together as a team and realized that this would add fuel to our fire and allow us to build off of what we worked towards for the past year,” Madden said. “I think it was also important for us to realize that the cancellation of sports was about something much bigger than us as athletes and was for the greater good, and it allowed us to find more purpose in our roles as athletes and leaders.”
Douglass’ original plans — which haven’t changed since the postponement — were to not put too much pressure on herself when it came to the Olympics this year.
“My goals for Olympic Trials this year were just to see how high I could place in my events,” Douglass said. “I was just going to go into it without any expectations and see what I could do.”
Similarly, Madden said that she had it in the back of her mind that she wanted to make the U.S. team this year, but that it wasn’t something she wanted to let control her thoughts. She noted that she plans to aim to make the 200 freestyle team — since this is a relay event, there are six spots available instead of the typical two.
The swimmers agreed that this delay has only strengthened their commitment to preparing for 2021. However, restrictions in place to keep student athletes safe and the lack of access to pools have made training difficult so far.
Douglass said that she lost access to a pool for a month and a half during quarantine, and when she finally found a small pool where she could swim, she did so for about two months until outdoor pools started opening back up. Madden, on the other hand, didn’t swim during the first part of quarantine. Instead, she said that she used the time to pick up other activities to stay in shape, such as running and weightlifting, and worked as a food delivery driver when she wasn’t studying for the GRE.
According to Madden, it was also sometimes hard to find motivation while training at home because she wasn’t with her teammates. However, Douglass — who has been in Virginia since May — said, even though it’s been fun to be around her fellow Virginia swimmers, it has still been difficult to deal with training without a lot of pool time and no access to University facilities.
For now, both plan to train with the hope that the upcoming season happens — according to the ACC’s plan for fall sports, all competition for swimming is delayed until at least Sept. 10, though athletes are permitted to train at their university’s discretion.
“Even though the possibility of a season is still up in the air, I want to train like it is still happening no matter what so I can help my team out in the best way possible,” Madden said.
As of Wednesday, four student athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 since Virginia football returned to Grounds at the beginning of July. There have been no positive tests since the report Virginia Athletics issued July 24, which said that two additional student-athletes tested positive for the virus.