In a world without coronavirus, this week would have been the culmination of years of work for Australia’s Olympic athletes.
Instead, the training and mind games roll on.
The Olympics were due to begin in Japan on Friday, but have now been postponed until this time next year, although once under way they will still be known as Tokyo 2020.
It’s a unique situation and one that’s required flexibility from officials and athletes, with the Australian Olympic Committee moving online to provide guidance and clarity to team members – some of whom remain locked down in Victoria.
Two-time Olympian and London bronze medallist Rowie Webster is captain of the Aussie Stingers and admits it has been a challenging time because “anxiety levels were different across the board”.
“It has been difficult. I don’t think there is anyone that would say it hasn’t,” she told The New Daily.
“But there is a bigger reality check with everything that is going on in the world.
“Probably the biggest challenges have been the unknowns – but like everyone, you just have to take it one day at a time.”
The Stingers were on track to be one of Australia’s top medal prospects in Tokyo, having edged out Hungary 10-9 in the bronze playoff at the 2019 World championships in South Korea.
Webster says new online connections have been vital to maintaining contact through the pandemic.
“Our squad are regularly in touch, but we are spread out across the country,” she said.
“The easing of restrictions [outside of Victoria] has allowed us to get back to training, although not full squad training and it differs state to state.
“At the moment, I’m in lockdown in Melbourne, but as high-performance athletes we have been given the opportunity to train at our institutes … we are lucky this time around in lockdown we can do that, in a controlled way, so we can maintain our pool sessions and gym work.”
Athletes are good at being resilient. We know that when you get knocked down … you just need to get back up again.’’
It’s been a familiar refrain from Olympic athletes, who have turned to AOC chief executive Matt Carroll and Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman and a series of special online presentations to fill in the gaps about how to maintain body and spirit in difficult times.
“This series has covered relevant topics for athletes featuring industry experts and Olympians with experience in the relevant topics,” an AOC spokesperson explained.
“This includes digital nutrition, mental health, entrepreneurs, elite mindset from home and normalising the abnormal …
“We have also kept athletes involved in our ongoing community programs, which have been moved into a digital format so they can keep contributing.
In the case of the Stingers, Webster says the Olympic postponement had created a new kind of pressure, with athletes forced to re-evaluate their training and commitment.
“Some people in our squad were looking at going to their last Olympics, some were hoping to go to their first,” she said.
“The pressure was coming from every direction.
“Certainly it does weigh on you. ‘Wow another year, can I put my body through this?’ but you decide you can and you just need to adapt your training.
“I went from doing 14 sessions a week with a team, to having to be creative with my fitness and adapt to a slower pace …
“Keeping fit and healthy was a priority as that helped me mentally as well for myself but also to be able to be the best captain I could be for my team.”
The Stingers have qualified for the Olympics, but team selection was due to be finalised earlier this month.
That will now be done in June-July next year just before the rescheduled Games.
Webster says her team is viewing the postponement as an opportunity to return to competition in an even better condition, knowing that they have done the work required for success.
When the Olympics was postponed, as a group we sort of realised it was our opportunity to say: ‘If we could rewrite our last 12 months leading into the Olympics what would we do? We’ve been given an extra 12 months. Let’s not waste it’.
“Our leadership team and coaches are really focused on making sure we can use this time wisely to make sure we are ready for Tokyo in 2021.
“We can’t think too far ahead and just need to take it one day, one week at a time.”
She says the lesson has been made clear, given the situation in her home state of Victoria.
“Now I’m less than a week out from what would have been the Olympics and I’m headed back into COVID-19 lockdown, you do need to keep that goal of simply getting to the Olympics in sight.
“I think the Tokyo Olympics will be the most significant Olympics we’ve seen … just getting to the start line will be a massive achievement. But I know once we’re there, competitiveness will take over.”
And as for the role of sport in the midst of a global pandemic?
“I think the world’s perspective has changed. We don’t earn big money playing water polo, but we are lucky to play our sport and lucky to do what we do. We need to keep thankful for that.”