Life lessons in isolation

Life lessons in isolation

Coronavirus is a stern teacher ... and there's no skipping class

By Jessica Tuomela for CBC Sports
April 29, 2020

Amidst all the upheaval of COVID-19, every one of us is learning new lessons, whether we want them or not. Aside from the medical, logistical, financial, and political data we are absorbing daily, we are also learning a lot about ourselves. In my own case, a few weeks ago, my triathlon season came to a screeching halt. Having traveled to the United States to race, my coach, teammates and I all self quarantined upon returning to Canada. As someone who thrives in busy environments, I was concerned about what I would do with myself while trapped in solitary in my smallish condo. What have I learned? A thing or two about failure and discipline, for starters.

Jessica Tuomela, left, and guide Marianne Hogan celebrate Tokyo qualifying win. (Submitted by ITU media) Jessica Tuomela, left, and guide Marianne Hogan celebrate Tokyo qualifying win. (Submitted by ITU media)

Learning to Fail

My hand-mixer is smoking, flour is flying through the air and there is cement-like cake batter clinging to my hair. It’s not new that I love food, but it is new for me to be experimenting in the kitchen. 

When I was trying to balance a full time training load with my kitchen curiosity, physical exhaustion usually cut my cooking efforts short. Since being in quarantine, the training load has reduced and I have found more time for sautéing, blanching and, less successfully, baking. During one of many internet searches for recipes, I came across a delicious-sounding Blueberry Cinnamon Coffee Cake. It just happened that I had all of the ingredients and so I set to work measuring, pouring and mixing. But, as the batter came together, something went very wrong. The contents in the bowl, and highlighting my hair, were not the silky smooth offering of the recipe. I could have built a sturdy mud hut with my mixture. Recognizing when I have been defeated, I scraped the glop into the garbage and made for the shower.

Tuomela's quarantine cake enters the rogue's gallery. (@jessica.tuomela/Instagram) Tuomela's quarantine cake enters the rogue's gallery. (@jessica.tuomela/Instagram)

As an elite athlete, failure is what we train to avoid at all costs. But sometimes those moments of failure, are when we learn the most. Being able to scrape my adobe batter into the garbage and just move on with my day was a huge moment for me. Accepting that I didn’t do something perfectly forces me to recognize my own vulnerability. And, there’s personal growth in that. Who knew I would learn so much from cake batter?

Broken fingernails, sore thumbs, chain grease on my face. I have learned to change a flat tire. I have committed to training and everything that comes along with it for years, but doing it solo? This is new. Self quarantine meant a significant change in how I could train. Luckily, I had a bike on a trainer already set up in my living room, and so it seemed logical to just bike a lot since running and swimming were out of the question.


Flat fixed, wheel back in place, logging the long miles again. (Submitted by Jessica Tuomela) Flat fixed, wheel back in place, logging the long miles again. (Submitted by Jessica Tuomela)

Learning Discipline

It never occurred to me that anything would go wrong with the bike, but during one workout very early in the quarantine, my back wheel started feeling funny. I hopped off to discover that the tire was completely flat. A little panicked, I stood spinning the flat tire between my fingers for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to do.

I had never changed a flat before. Being completely blind, I had never even seen someone change a flat before. Determined to get my workout in, and many more, I pulled the bike off the trainer and resolved to change the tire, no matter what. Necessity becomes the greatest innovator. After an hour plus of pulling, pinching, yanking and swearing, I managed to get the tire off of the wheel. As I sat with the deflated tube in my hands, doubts started creeping in.

I was sitting on my kitchen floor, bits of bike littered about me. The rules are clear: no one enters, no one leaves. Quarantine meant I was on my own. I gritted my teeth and went back to prying and squeezing and pleading with the tire to go back on the rim. Two hours went by, and my coach called me on FaceTime video, and patiently explained where my technique was incorrect.


I resumed my struggle. Fingernails were shredded, fingertips went raw. But the video chat gave me encouragement, and after three hours, the sweet sound of success. A dull “thunk” told me that the tire had finally popped into place.

As I happily pedaled my way into the sunset, going nowhere because I was back on the trainer in my living room, I took a moment to reflect. I was proud of myself for changing the flat, but more proud to learn that I had discipline. Getting the wheel back in working order was about being able to continue to train, even if I had to do it solo. A very wise coach once told me, “I can give you encouragement, but I can’t give you discipline.” Wrestling with the punctured tire, my coach had encouraged me, but it was my own discipline that got my butt back on the bike seat, exhausted and sore though I was.

A sustaining recent memory: Tuomela atop the podium at  the 2019 Tokyo Paratriathlon World Cup. (Submitted by ITU media) A sustaining recent memory: Tuomela atop the podium at the 2019 Tokyo Paratriathlon World Cup. (Submitted by ITU media)

Now that my quarantine has ended, I have moved into Physical Distancing. I still have time to consider the lessons I am learning. No matter how long I’m at home, I probably won’t fold the socks sitting unpaired on my dresser. Coffee tastes better when I slow down to enjoy it. Fingernails grow back.

I think the thing that will stay with me beyond this COVD19 crisis, the thing that matters most, is the power of empathy. It is the common denominator. Empathy unites, regardless of where we are in the world. Banging on pots and pans to show support, dancing and singing, messages written with genuine concern.

When this is all over, perhaps empathy will be our legacy.

(Top large image submitted by ITU media)

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