From COVID-19 to Tokyo 2021: The Show Goes On

On Friday, March 20th I thought I’d wrapped up my Olympic selection. After a second-place finish at Olympic final trials and a week of internal crew formation testing, I thought I was finally out of the woods. However, COVID-19 hadn’t got the memo on Tokyo 2020. That evening Boris Johnson announced the forced closure of pubs, restaurants and leisure clubs. The next day I arrived at training unsure what to expect. I was greeted by hurrying coaches informing me that an impromptu team meeting had been called which was to take place on the concrete steps in front of the building. At the meeting, we were notified that upon consultation with the coaches, the board of directors and other key stakeholders within British Rowing, the decision had been taken to close the national training centre with immediate effect. Next, we were then told that the coaches had made a decision regarding selection and that the team for the Olympic games would be as follows. I stood there, outside on those slabs of lifeless concrete on a blustery Saturday morning and listened as my name, along with 30 odd others, was readout. Having trained relentlessly for a decade for this moment, this was not the way I ever thought it would play out. A moment that should have been one of the proudest days of my life ended up being one of the most uncomfortable moments of my rowing career. The news that we wouldn’t be training together and that our Olympic campaign lay in tatters was a bitter pill to swallow.

Immediately afterwards, the team congregated together asking each other what to do next. We were all at a loss. Once the meeting had finished, I cleared out my locker, packed up a rowing machine and drove home. For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic had hit the news, I actually wondered whether The Olympics would be cancelled altogether. I spent the weekend laying low, ordered a takeaway curry with a couple of teammates and had a few beers to take the edge off on Saturday night. By the time Monday rolled around my spirits had lifted and I was ready to go back to work; I was ready to do whatever it took to stay fit so whenever that call came I would be primed to go. At that point, there had been no official word on postponement or cancellation so as far as I was concerned I would train as if The Games were still on. That day, I did 32km on the machine and a weights circuit in my kitchen. This was quarantine training at its finest. It was primitive and riddled with imperfections; exactly the way I like it.

The following day the IOC announced the postponement until 2021. We were quickly notified that our provisional selection was rendered void. My Olympic selection had lasted all of 72 hours. In Olympic year, selection runs deeper. It requires that much extra physical and mental energy to ensure that you come out the other end on the right side so it was a real kick in the teeth to hear that we would have to go through it all again. I don’t disagree with that decision though. You have to pick a team on current form, not on results that happened 16 months before competition. You don’t see Gary Ballance getting a look in for the England cricket team on the back of runs he scored in 2014. As of now, I am still training in isolation. Last week, the dates for 2021 were announced so at least now I have a timeline from which to work. This doesn’t change my current day to day massively though. I am still hacking away on the rowing machine in a perpetual state of sadomasochism in an empty shed. It’s mentally testing but part of me relishes this type of training even more. Situations like this stress the mind as much as they do the body. I am trying to treat the isolation as a “non-factor” in the numbers that I am producing and approach each session with the asinine integrity that it deserves.

There are a thousand excuses to back off but I know that the time we have now is an opportunity to train harder and smarter than our competitors around the world. The athletes who deal with this period the best will be the ones who thrive next summer. As a team, we have gotten to grips with functioning remotely extremely quickly. I am in daily contact with our strength & conditioning coach, our physiologist as well as the chief coach and all of our data is being collated into a stack of excel spreadsheets. Without doubt, the diligence and willingness to adapt from our support staff has made the isolation training more bearable. I won’t sugarcoat it though, it is tough logging miles and miles of solo training outside of the team environment.

In hindsight, the decision to postpone was inevitable and undoubtedly the correct call. I could be forgiven for losing sight of the bigger picture when all I do is exist in this bubble where the focus of everything is honed in on one singularity. For me though, this was not one of those times. The gravity of the situation hit home rapidly and however much we love sport it should never supersede the value of human life. I wasn’t overly emotional when I received the announcement. Undoubtedly there is disappointment in having to wait another year but that year also offers more time to get faster. Although I am gutted not to be racing for a shot at Olympic glory this summer, I do feel as if the pressure surrounding my daily life has been halved in an instant because of the postponement. A significant part of my training feeds off that pressure though, so in the coming months I will look to manufacture that urgency in different ways, be it through ergometer tests or other means. The clock which read 104 days has now been reset to 468 days. In for a penny, in for a pound. As I have been told countless times by coaches throughout my career, opportunity arises out of setbacks; I will continue to do what is necessary to make it to the start line in Tokyo.

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