Elite athletes get creative in isolation as their Tokyo Olympics dreams stall

With international qualifying events cancelled and practice venues like Montreal's Big O closed, Olympic hopefuls wait at home, trying to stay in physical and mental shape, and wonder what comes next.

With qualifying events cancelled, practice venues closed, Olympic hopefuls wait and wonder what comes next

Rene Cournoyer, seen performing on the rings at the American Cup gymnastics competition in Milwaukee on March 7, said while they were competing, news of the COVID-19 outbreak dominated the headlines. (Mory Gash/The Associated Press)

Joseph Polossifakis was the first of his teammates to speak up.

"We can't sit around and wait," he recalls saying.

It was just one week ago — the morning of Thursday, March 12. Only hours earlier the WHO had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Polossifakis, an Olympic fencer who competed for Canada in Rio in 2016, and some other Canadian Olympic hopefuls with their hearts set on Tokyo were at a training camp in Germany.

"My teammates weren't as sure [about leaving] as me," said Polossifakis.

"It wasn't like there was a huge panic on TV saying, 'Everyone come back to Canada.' I was just looking ahead, like in a day or two: how is this going to be if we wait?"

Joseph Polossifakis, who has been balancing his full-time job and training for qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, cut short a training camp in Germany to fly home as soon as the WHO announced the coronavirus pandemic. (Simon Martel/CBC)

Polossifakis opened his laptop to book a flight home, knowing that his dream of competing in the Olympics was hanging in the balance if he missed the qualifier which, at the time, was still scheduled to proceed that weekend in Hungary.

"You're kind of worried — what if my competition isn't actually cancelled?" Polossifakis said.

"At the time I just said, listen, as soon as they declared it a pandemic and all this is happening, I hope my federation makes the right choice."

He and his teammates booked the next available flight home. He said his coach booked the identical flight a few minutes later and paid $200 more.

By the time the team had reached their gate at the airport, the federation had cancelled the event.

"Everyone was very happy with [the decision to leave] at the end of the day," Polossifakis said.

Veteran Olympic diver takes to jumping on her bed

Canada's Meaghan Benfeito, seen here performing a dive in the women's 10-metre platform at the FINA Diving World Series in Montreal last month, is no longer able to practise as her training pool has been closed due to the outbreak. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Meaghan Benfeito was wrapping up practice at the diving pool at the national training centre at Montreal's Olympic Stadium when the news came that the centre was closing due the pandemic.

"I'm happy I was home in Montreal," Benfeito said.

The team's scheduled trip to Russia and on to London for world series events which count toward qualifying for Tokyo are also cancelled, and now Benfeito's path to those games is unclear.

She's at home, watching videos of her recent competitions to stay mentally sharp and looking for creative ways to stay on top of things, physically.

"I pulled out one of my bed mattresses today to do flips on," she said. "I've been diving for 23 years now — I don't think two months is going to make me forget how to dive."

A rookie Olympic gymnast feels the stress

While Benfeito can rely on the confidence she's built up having already competed in two Olympics, gymnast René Cournoyer doesn't have the same luxury.

After narrowly missing the cut for Rio, he secured his spot for Tokyo in October — his first Olympics experience.

"The whole thing was just crazy," Cournoyer says

He was at a competition in Milwaukee on Sunday, March 8 as reports of the spread of the novel coronavirus took over the news feed. He came home that night and was glad he did.

"Everything was closing," said Cournoyer. "Within a few days, we just had nowhere to go" to train.

Cournoyer is at home with his parents and his brother now. He said he's doing whatever he can to stay in shape but admits the rapidly changing situation is taking a toll.

"It's stressful to not be able to train properly and not being sure if the event will even happen."

Arriving home to self-isolation

The flight path took Polossifakis from Germany, to France, to Montreal.

While he was in the air, Premier François Legault called for anyone arriving from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks, so when he landed, Polossifakis said, he told his father not to come and pick him up. He and his girlfriend had to figure out which one would vacate their shared apartment.

"I told her, maybe I'll get a hotel or an Airbnb for a couple of days," Polossifakis said. "She ended up going to her brother's. It was a huge ordeal."

Polossifakis has been at home alone since — closing himself off from the world for the recommended 14 days.

"That's been the biggest fear, having it without having symptoms and spreading it. That's what creates so much anxiety. I don't want to interact with anyone from my family right now, especially those at risk," he said.

Dressed as a Greek high priestess, actress Xanthi Georgiou stands by the Olympic flame during the handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics Thursday. The ceremony was held in private, as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to the shock of suddenly being isolated, Polossifakis's elite-level training also ground to an abrupt halt. He had been gearing up to perform at his peak level in the coming weeks.

He's unsure how his body is going to react going from 100 to zero like this.

"It's been chaos. I really hope some kind of normalcy comes back in a couple of weeks."

Games to go on, organizers say

On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee said in a statement it still hopes to hold the games as planned this summer. The statement read in part:

"With more than four months to go before the Games, there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive."

The IOC is getting mixed reviews from the athletes for its stance.

Cournoyer has already qualified for the games, so he's hoping that the measures in place worldwide to curb the spread of the coronavirus will work, allowing the games to start on time.

Benfeito and Polossifakis, however, still need to qualify for Tokyo.

"I want to go to the Olympics in Tokyo, so I'm going to do everything that I need to do, regardless of if it's in 2020 or 2021," said Benfeito.

Whatever their sport, that is one thing Olympic-level athletes all share: a resolve to compete that never wavers.

Athletes in every discipline have seen their seasons cut short. CBC spoke to Deux-Montagnes, Que., moguls world champion Mikaël Kingsbury, who is now in isolation:

Kingsbury, who won his ninth straight Crystal Globe in Russia on March 7, is now back in Montreal after the cancellation of the remainder of the moguls season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:00

About the Author

Douglas Gelevan, a national award-winning sports journalist, has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. He is currently the sports journalist for CBC News Montreal.

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