The Great Read

‘It’s Just So Devastating’: For Crestfallen Gymnasts, an Olympic Dream Deferred

Female gymnasts often compete at younger ages than their Olympic peers and have a far more concentrated opportunity at the top. Into that intense world dropped the coronavirus pandemic.

MyKayla Skinner, who was contending for a spot representing the United States during the Tokyo Olympics, said competing in 2021 instead would be challenging mentally, physically and emotionally.
Credit...Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

MyKayla Skinner, a gymnast on the United States national team, fought to finish her workout.

Time after time last Thursday, she tried to focus on her vault, but none of her flips, twists or landings ended up just right. All she wanted to do was go home and weep under her bedcovers. She wiped away tears.

Her coaches, she later said, thought she had cried because of her poor practice. But Skinner, an alternate for the 2016 Olympics training for the Tokyo Games, knew it was something more.

“It hit me that I only had five more months to push hard toward the Olympics and now that finish line is so far away,” Skinner said Sunday in a telephone interview, regarding the postponement of the Games until next year. “It’s just so devastating.”

Skinner is just one of thousands of other Olympic hopefuls and Olympians — including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history — who are anxious about the schedule change that has upended their regimented lives. Add the extra stress of the coronavirus outbreak and it’s no wonder the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee sent coaches recommendations to help athletes cope. The No. 1 tip is, “Grief belongs to the griever,” because the postponement has elicited such raw and deep feelings from athletes who had hoped to compete in the Olympics this summer.

The rescheduling of the Olympics has hit female gymnasts particularly hard, considering that their window for Olympic success is so tiny. Most female Olympic gymnasts are teenagers who compete in only one Summer Games before their bodies mature, adding weight and height that make it harder to twist and flip. They also start the sport so young, much younger than their male counterparts, that their bodies break down and can’t last. It has been 48 years since an Olympic gold medalist in the women’s all-around was older than 19.

So it would have been significant if Biles, the face of the American team going into Tokyo, competed this summer to defend her all-around Olympic title. She is 23 and cried in her gym’s locker room when she heard news of the postponement.

“I’m still taking it day by day to see if I’ll continue or what’s going to happen,” Biles said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from her home outside Houston. “Mentally, I don’t know if I can handle it. It’s going to be hard. I was already battling with myself mentally if I could do it this year.”

Biles said she had been looking forward to finishing her career this summer so she could decide her next step in life, have a respite from her everyday aches and nagging injuries and never have to deal with U.S.A. Gymnastics or the U.S.O.P.C. again. Biles — who said she was abused by Lawrence G. Nassar, the longtime national team doctor now in prison for abusing at least 200 girls and women — has been disgusted with how the Olympic authorities failed the athletes they were supposed to protect.

Credit...Andrew Spear for The New York Times

“Another year of dealing with U.S.A.G.?” she said with exasperation.

Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, has won 19 gold medals at the sport’s world championships, the most ever. She was expected to easily defend her all-around title this summer.

She said she has kept to herself while contemplating the postponement: “I feel like who’s going to understand at this point? No one understands.”

Jess Graba, who coaches Biles’s teammate Sunisa Lee, said many gymnasts training for the Tokyo Games just need some time and space to let the postponement sink in.

“A lot of people think, you’re young, you’ll get another chance at the Olympics, but they don’t understand that this wasn’t a one-year plan, it was a 10-year plan,” Graba said. “It’s not like you can just hit the reset button and keep training for another year. It’s much more complicated than that.”

Lee, who is 17 and finished second to Biles in the all-around at last year’s national championships, said the postponement had already taken a physical and mental toll on her. Her high school in St. Paul, Minn., is closed. Her gym is closed. In 12 years of training, the most time she had ever taken off from her sport before the pandemic, she said, was one week.

Working out at her gym was once Lee’s outlet, a way for her to focus intensely on her sport while forgetting a teenager’s everyday pressures. Now, she talks to her gymnastics friends on FaceTime and spends her days at home with her five siblings and her parents, including her father, John, who is in a wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the chest down last year when he fell from a ladder while helping a friend cut a tree branch.

Lee has been helping her father eat and often lifts him from his bed to his wheelchair, and then back to his bed at night. She also has been working out with him, lifting weights or using rubber bands to keep in shape while he does the same as he tries to regain his strength. She is careful about being germ-free. Sometimes, her father has difficulty breathing, so Lee worries that he wouldn’t fare well if infected with the coronavirus.

Credit...Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

“It adds a lot of stress because I don’t want him to get sick,” she said. “This has been a tough, tough time.”

Other gymnasts, like Skinner, also worry about their parents. Skinner’s mother and father are battling symptoms of Covid-19 and have self-quarantined at home in Gilbert, Ariz., about a mile from Skinner’s apartment. The Arizona governor issued a stay-at-home order on Monday that will last through April. Skinner is also nervous that her father’s job teaching doctors how to use a laser device might be in jeopardy because of the economic downturn and social distancing.

Tom Forster, the high-performance coordinator for the United States women’s national team, said last Friday that some parents of national team athletes have already lost their jobs. He said it’s one serious concern on a long list of questions that are unsettling national team gymnasts right now: Could they return to their high level of gymnastics next year? Should they try to return at all?

What will the selection procedure look like for next summer’s Olympics? Can they keep their spot on the national team? What will happen with gymnasts who are too young for this summer’s Games because they won’t turn 16 this year, but who, under the current rules, could qualify for Tokyo next year?

Forster doesn’t have many answers yet. But he is confident that U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S.O.P.C. can help athletes manage their anxieties.

Kim Kranz, the gymnastics organization’s vice president for athlete health and wellness, said leaders were trying to support athletes who might be sad, frustrated or angry because their plans have changed so drastically. Sports psychologists or other therapists provided by the U.S.O.P.C. are available to athletes by phone.

“I imagine that many of them are going through the stages of grieving as if you lost a loved one,” Kranz said. “We are really encouraging athletes to control the things they can control.”

Credit...Thomas Kienzle/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a video recently sent to Olympic hopeful gymnasts, Karen Cogan, a senior sports psychologist at the U.S.O.P.C., tells the athletes that dealing with the outbreak has similarities to competing, with the outcomes never certain.

“The whole world is dealing with this challenge,” Cogan says. “Our job as athletes, as Team U.S.A. athletes, is to do it better than anybody else.”

In a telephone interview last week, Cogan said she has been swamped with phone calls from athletes looking for help. Some want to talk through their options and are leaning toward retirement because they can’t manage another year of training.

“It used to be that we’d talk about mental training or some personal issues, but now every conversation is about the virus and the postponement,” she said. “What we’re saying now is let’s hold off on any life decisions at this point until we know a little bit more.”

Forster, the high-performance director, said it would be an especially challenging decision for older athletes to stick around for another year because physical pains increase.

For Biles, the aches and pains include two big toes with serious injuries. She recently saw a doctor who gave her bad news, she said: One of the toes is shattered in five places and it will never totally heal; the other is cracked.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” she said.

Since her gym closed on Thursday, Biles has kept to herself while she contemplates her future. She has cleaned and organized her pantry, her bedroom and her kitchen, has been watching the “Tiger King” documentary on Netflix and also has worked out on her own. To get fresh air, she walks her French bulldog, Lilo.

The alone time has been cathartic, she said, though it has been difficult for her to not see her parents for the last two and a half weeks because of virus concerns. She misses them.

Credit...Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Biles said she had not talked to therapists or sports psychologists, and wants nothing offered by the U.S.O.P.C. She said she would make her decision about next year’s Olympics herself, not minding the pressures, real or perceived, from her sponsors like Nike and Visa.

“I was never doing it for them anyway,” she said. “I’m just playing it by ear. I have to listen to my mind and body and go into the gym and see how I feel.”

Skinner is also listening to her body, and the two gymnasts have commiserated about their aging bodies in the past — including just last week when they texted each other and said they both dreaded a possible postponement because, to paraphrase, they are old and their bodies hurt.

To compete at the Olympics, Skinner would need to weather another year of wear and tear, with achy knees and stinging elbows. And taking another year off from the University of Utah might mean that Skinner’s N.C.A.A. eligibility for her final year of college gymnastics would expire. She has been looking forward to her senior year, which would not be nearly as intense as her Olympic training and, frankly, much easier on her body and more fun.

Holding on for Tokyo next summer also would mean putting off her real life, yet again. She married Jonas Harmer in November and they recently were looking for a starter home in Utah.

These days, nothing is unfolding the way Skinner had expected. Her best friend’s bridal shower didn’t happen last week because of concerns over the coronavirus — the partygoers instead pulled up in their cars, handed their gifts over, waved and left. The bachelorette party that Skinner, a bridesmaid, had planned didn’t happen, either. Skinner was upset that she couldn’t even attend a casual gathering for the bride, fearing that she had been exposed to the virus through her parents or, possibly, relatives who recently had taken a cruise.

She has leaned on her husband and other relatives to vent her stress and anger over the situation. Her mental trainer, Clay Frost, has also helped her refocus when her mind starts spinning.

She says a few key phrases, like “be the best you can be,” and punches her hand to snap her back. Or, to put things in perspective, she makes lists of the things she can and can’t control.

“I definitely feel like everyone’s emotions are all over the place,” Skinner said. “As of right now, I’m still training for the Olympics, I’m still going for it. I just want to make sure it’s what I want to do.”