For athletes, as for everyone, life was turned upside down in 2020. Training as we knew it was impossible, competitions were wiped from the calendar, and the focal point of the summer cycle – the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games – was postponed.
Inevitably, there were negative consequences. However, with life and elite sport now returning to something approaching normal, can we take some positives from the skills that were borne out of necessity as a result of the pandemic?
Joe Choong won modern pentathlon gold at the rearranged Tokyo Olympics, and here, shares his story of overcoming the disruption and taking confidence from his own adaptability.
“The pandemic was a nightmare for all of us, and as an athlete it felt like it impacted my life even more than most. Working from home became routine for the entire nation, but for most athletes training from home just doesn’t quite cut it.
“My sport is modern pentathlon – running, swimming, shooting, fencing and show jumping – and obviously during lockdowns, it was impossible to access facilities or meet up with training partners.
“My life went from three or four sessions a day across different sports, to just one run (in line with the Government guidelines!), and occasional shooting (it’s just a laser pistol!) in the communal garden at the back of my flat.
“This is meant to be a positive piece of writing, but first I’ll just give a bit of background about what my thoughts were at the time. I struggled to adjust to this change. I went from being world number one less than six months out from the Olympic Games, to being locked in my flat on a basically non-existent training schedule, with more time than I knew what to do with.
“Before the pandemic hit, we had just had the BOA come into our training group and give their presentation about what to expect in the Olympic village in Tokyo. That was the moment the Olympic dream became real for me before Rio in 2016, and it had a similar effect on me in 2020.
“I went from that – from dreaming about my chance to win an Olympic medal, to having my entire season cancelled, with nothing to aim for over the next 12 months. To me, having no competitions for so long was the worst part – my coach was still sending me a running plan but for the first two or three weeks but I found myself very demotivated and questioned what the point of training was if I wasn’t going to be competing.
“However, after a week or two of feeling sorry for myself, I persuaded myself to start committing to the running programme that I was being sent. At first, I found it very easy to skip a day here or there (despite having so much free time – I was still perfectly capable of filling entire days playing computer games or watching Netflix), but as I got more into it, I actually began to enjoy the simplicity of just running.
“Compared to juggling a timetable designed to balance the needs of five sports, just running was so much less stressful. I began to really enjoy my one run a day, and as we came out of the first lockdown, I was running faster than I ever had before.
“For me, knowing I’m hitting PBs and improving is one of the best feelings as an athlete. That, and mixing in some improvised swim training in the local river with some of the other boys, (only after lockdown restriction lifted, obviously) meant that after the first few weeks, and despite all the problems the country was facing, I managed to turn my lockdown experience into a really positive one.
“Obviously, I’m aware that compared to a lot of people in the country, my experience as a healthy, relatively young athlete was a lot easier than others – my Grandma didn’t leave her house for 12 weeks straight – but I think that coming out of the pandemic having felt like I had achieved was a really important contributor towards my Tokyo success.
“A question I’ve been asked a lot since the Games is what my preparations were like given the global pandemic. I always answer that the best thing I did was making the most out of all the lockdowns.
“I was very lucky in that I had an athlete exemption, so a lot of my training was unaffected by the second and third lockdowns, but it would still have been easy to let all the minor inconveniences take away from the things I was able to do.
“As we finally look to be moving away from the pandemic, I think the adaptability will be an important skill going forwards. The ability to deal with set backs in a positive mindset means that you will continue to be the best you can be regardless of things that are outside your control.”