News17 Mar 2020

Athletes combat the challenges of training in the age of coronavirus


Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi (© AFP / Getty Images)

Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi arrived in Greece on the first of March, to visit family, put in a month-long training cycle and take part in the Olympic Torch Relay on Thursday before planning to return to her base near Cleveland, Ohio. But nothing went remotely close to plan.

The Olympic Torch was lit last week but the nation-wide relay was cancelled, another casualty of the coronavirus outbreak. Last Wednesday all stadiums in Greece were closed. And her poles, which have already survived the craziest of travel tales, are stuck in quarantine on the other side of the Atlantic.

"We have trained on the beach and the street and we are lucky to have one bar at home to do some modified lifting," she said. "But obviously we cannot pole vault at home or the beach or the street. More and more things are closing down every day here like in most countries of course, and it’s honestly becoming harder to worry about training or the Olympics with what is going on in the world around us."

As much of an inconvenience as those modified and rudimentary training facilities are, they're secondary to a larger issue that all athletes are grappling with at the moment, said Stefanidi's husband and coach, Mitch Krier: the current uncertainty that's enveloping every aspect of our lives.

"I think the biggest issue is not even the disruption in current training with closed stadiums, but rather the uncertainty if meets will occur on the same dates, or postponed, if at all."

Meets serve as an important training measure and building block, Krier said. The absence of competition makes it difficult to program their training when the traditional meeting schedule has been forced into disarray by the coronavirus epidemic.

Berry: 'My goal is to continue improving, to reaching excellence'

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry of the US found herself in a similar situation, albeit not on a beach in Greece, when she found herself stuck without a place to train a week ago.

"Most athletes in the U.S. train at college facilities, and everything is shut down," said Berry, who with a 77.78m lifetime best, sits in the event's No. 5 position all-time.


Gwen Berry spins to the Pan-American Games title in Lima


Berry trains at the University of Houston, whose facilities have been closed since the school’s spring break holiday began eight days ago. "Right now, we're not sure when they'll re-open." In the meantime, she’s found a local secondary school track to train on.

Finding motivation, at least, isn't difficult for Berry whose main goal this season is to keep improving. "I'm working on a lot of things. My goal isn't just to get to the Olympics. I've already been there. My goal is to continue improving, to reaching excellence."

At the moment she has no idea when she'll next compete. The Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, on 18 April, is pencilled in on her schedule, but the fate of that meet is unclear.

Trajkovic: 'The only thing we can do is wait' 

Milan Trajkovic of Cyprus, the 2019 European indoor 60m hurdles champion, also quite abruptly found himself without a track to train on.

Things were more or less normal until last Saturday, he said, a few days after the first confirmed virus cases in Cyprus. Trajkovic was on the tail end of a rehab week after three weeks of hard training. After taking two days off, he returned to the track at the National Athletics Stadium in Nicosia only to find that it would be closing the next day. He hasn't been able to train since.


Milan Trajkovic and training partner Orlando Ortega


"We don’t know what will happen in the coming days and the only thing we can do is to wait," he said. "We must adapt to this situation, but after that we will definitely need to train, especially if the Olympics will be held as scheduled.

“We are still believing that everything will be fine soon to continue our preparation for Tokyo. I can't imagine any other scenario right now. I've been waiting four years for this."

So has Orlando Ortega, who raced to silver in the 110m hurdles in Rio four years ago. He is part of Trajkovic's six-man training group, but was unable to join them in Cyprus this week.

Delayed by a missed connection out of Spain, travel restrictions for Cyprus-bound travellers came into effect as he waited in transit, forcing him to return to Madrid.

"Now he is alone there and not able to train.”

Mihaljevic: 'The hardest aspect of the whole situation is mental'

Croatian shot putter Filip Mihaljevic shared similar tales.

After a brief post-indoor season break, Mihaljevic, this year's World Athletics Indoor Tour winner in the shot put, returned to training this week to find that everything had changed. Or was about to.

"This week I am back to training and the effect of coronavirus is hitting us harder and harder. The Croatian government is probably going to close the facilities where I train, so we are making alternative plans so we miss the least amount of training as possible." With most restaurants expected to close, he'll also have to find another way to get his meals.


Filip Mihaljevic improves to 21.74m in Madrid


"Coronavirus is a global phenomenon and there is not much we athletes can do but stay safe, and call out the public to be safe and follow the instructions given by the WHO and the local authorities," he said.

"But even with all the issues going on, the hardest aspect of the whole situation is mental. It is so hard to be motivated for training at this time because you just hear the bad news: more and more people are infected, more and more people are dying. And you are supposed to train hard for the meets and for a season that might be cancelled. 

"At this time I just need to stay safe and do some training to stay in some kind of shape, but I am also prepared to stay at home for a week or two and hope the situation will get better and everything will go back to normal."

Mihaljevic is based in the Adriatic coast city of Split, but spends part of his time with family in Livno, Bosnia and Hercegovina, about 100 kilometres away. Often a mere formality for locals, that international border that separates the two former Yugoslav republics has this week become a more formidable barrier.

"The rapid changes are keeping us on our toes. Just yesterday I was in Bosnia and I was planning to travel to Split in the afternoon, but the news came out that all travelers from Bosnia entering Croatia would have to go to isolation. So I had to change my plan and quickly cross the border before they closed." 

But he too is remaining upbeat.

"I’m somewhat optimistic though, when I saw they had a meet in China (on Saturday). It gave me hope things would get better."

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics