Coronavirus: As Inactive Athletes Struggle, Former Olympian Swimmer Points To “Personal Next”

By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)

In this year of 2020 we all are dealing with an unprecedented shut down of the athletic schedule with dozens of signature events being postponed or completely cancelled.

For fans and media the transition into this long-term pause has provided a chance to look back to classic games and milestones, but for today’s active athletes, those at the heart of the tough decisions countless organizations and federations have had to make, there’s nothing left to do right now but to try and pick up the pieces of what’s left with their sports lives.

With the recent announcement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a new group of premiere athletes have joined the ranks of so many professional and collegiate players who are stuck in stasis.

Never has an entire Olympiad been shelved for such a long period, but past games have been canceled due to war, and in relative peace time, the United States has set a standard of what could provoke it to not be involved, in spite of knowing how many of its own athletes it would disappoint.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to continue the spread of its regime of Communism, and the invasion helped add fire to the long-running Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

President Jimmy Carter rebuked the invasion, demanding that the Soviet Union withdrew their troops from Afghanistan or the United States would remove themselves from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Russians didn’t relent and on March 21, 1980, President Carter made the boycott decision official. The U.S. decision set the tone for a large contingent of countries — 65 to be exact — deciding to not be involved in the Moscow games.

In Canada, Melinda Harrison, then Melinda Copp, was a senior in high school and a standout swimmer, bound for the University of Michigan and training for the ’80 Olympics when those events took place. As she started hearing rumors of Canada’s involvement in the boycott, she didn’t train as hard as she normally would, in her words taking her foot off the gas, and ultimately costing herself a roster spot.

In her upcoming book Personal Next: What We Can Learn From Professional Athletes Navigating Career Transition, Harrison — who would eventually participate in the 1984 Olympics (which the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted) and graduate from U-M as a two-time Captain, multi-year All-American swimmer, NCAA silver medalist and multi-Big Ten Conference champion — discusses different ways for athletes to help navigate their experiences of transition and move forward to find goals and new meanings in their lives. The book also helps parents understand experiences through the eyes of their underage athletes.

“Mental health is why I took my foot off the gas,” Harrison said recently to WARR Media. “I was thinking what does this all mean. Instead of dedicating myself to the sport, I hung out with my friends. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to experience that.”

Harrison’s experience as an Olympic athlete, and later a certified coach along with being a published author has given her the authority that comes in knowing how to train for an international sports competition along with the immense pressure that comes in representing your country. Those things can do a lot to make or break one mentally due to the intensity that you have to train and the commitment needed to prepare for the next Olympic run, even if its four years away.

Harrison admits to exhibiting forms of anxiety due to her lack of preparation for the Olympics. She discussed the realities that an Olympic athlete faces in this context and how the uncertainty of success can cloud your mental health.

“After the last Olympic games, an athlete has to ask if they are willing to put four years into trying to improve,” Harrison said. “That is a huge commitment, especially as a teenager/young adult. They look at all the competitions throughout the years and train around those competitions. When you strive to make an Olympic team, it’s a four-year period. Either you make it or you don’t, and you go back at it again. You don’t know if you are qualified, but you continue to train.”

Speaking on the 2020 decision, Harrison believes the Olympic committee made the correct decision in postponing, crediting the idea of not just keeping people healthy and safe, but also adding more time for those athletes to train/develop.

“Athletes are not prepared mentally and physically without training,” Harrison said. “If a swimmer can’t get to a pool for two months, you can’t expect to perform at the highest level. It is about creating a safe environment for everyone, from volunteers, athletes, etc. We need to ensure that the environment is 100 percent safe, and the Olympics can’t say that right now. It is a complicated discussion, but [the Olympic committee] made the correct move.”

According to Harrison, once you’ve been good at something, you have to figure out to be good at something else. She believes that athletes today have lost control of how their lives are to operate and such lack of control exhibited itself when the virus took over and dismantled current programs.

She suggests that in order for athletes to move forward, they should use this time to gather themselves, find out ways to only control what they can control and journal what they do to use as positive motivation.

“Find the things you can stay in control of,” Harrison said. “Small things like eating properly, how you workout/train during the day, etc. will help the athlete control their lives on a daily basis. I would then make them journal what they do and use as motivation to keep moving forward as situations arise.”

Mental health has been a constant topic in professional sports. High profile American athletes like Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Kelly Oubre, Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck have been frank and outspoken regarding the dark realities that they sometimes face maintaining a pro sports career. From an Olympic perspective, American swimming legend Michael Phelps has opened up on past suicidal thoughts he has had and he currently promotes the online therapy platform Talkspace in commercials where he makes mention of his own need to talk to mental professionals.

In her work Harrison highlights the importance of creating an avenue for athletes to be vulnerable in spite of how little it is expected of them. Some of the darkest moments of life can creep into moments when people are trying their best to exhibit strength.

“Athletes push through their struggles through sports because they are trained to do that,” Harrison said. “Not being vulnerable showed a sign of power. That opens the dark side to pushing through those struggles and athletes need to be aware of the help that is available through those struggles.”

Harrison can be reached online at Melindaharrison.com and on Instagram @melindaharrison.

 Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media 

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