Eye on the Prize: Three Star Athletes On the Winding Road to Tokyo

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As was the case for everything else, the schedule for the 2020 Olympics did not go as planned. At the beginning of March 2020, Simone Manuel, who won two gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was planning on continuing her streak in Tokyo, had just finished up a swim meet in Des Moines while talking to her mom. Rumors about the virus were flying. “My mom was saying, ‘Should you be taking pictures with fans? Should you be signing autographs?’  ” Manuel, 24, recalls. Three days after she got back to her home in California, the pool she trained in closed up, the 2020 games still theoretically on. “And nobody had a plan,” she says.

A gymnastics version of that happened to 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, who goes by Suni. A veteran of the U.S. team that won the gold at the 2019 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Lee was practicing her uneven-bar magic at her gym in the suburbs of St. Paul one day and doing Zoom workouts at home the next. Time stood still—until it didn’t. “It’s crazy how fast the time has gone,” she says.

One by one, athletes everywhere concocted new ways to train or resurrected old ones. In Florida, Lyles worked out on grass and on weekends took up roller-skating—a hobby that initially shocked his trainers, until they saw that it was less about speed and more about a vibe. “I figured out that a bunch of my friends, like, love to roller-skate. I actually got pretty decent.” Lee started running with her teammates, outdoors, and cooking with her mom, indoors. “It’s just so much healthier,” she says. (She reports, also, that it tasted great.) Thanks to her coach, Manuel managed to find a backyard pool seemingly designed for her needs: two lanes, with poolside race clocks and starting blocks. “You’re in California, and you have really big swim and water-polo fans, so everybody has these massive pools,” she says. Was she surprised at such a made-for-closed-swim-centers setup? “Yes,” she says, “but at the same time, if this were to be anywhere, it would be in California!”

The pool’s owners donated its daily use to Manuel and her former Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky, but the initial rush of fortunate feelings gave way to more complicated emotions in the shut-down world. “Sometimes I felt a little guilty,” Manuel recalls. “It was hard doing it knowing that the Olympics were postponed. You go through these roller-coaster emotions—you’re thinking, Ah, it’s another year to get better, and the next you’re like, But I was ready for it right now.” She did her best to keep things in perspective, but like everyone, she missed the least extraordinary things, like a trip to the mall or to the nail salon—and if you follow her on In­­stagram, you already know that she is not fooling about her nails, a tiny detail that makes her photo finishes even more impressive. Fortunately, swimming is a kind of therapy for her, but Zooming with her mother and father in Texas did not replace hugging them. “I went on walks, and I’m not a walker!” Did she turn into one? She breaks into laughter. “No!”

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