Abbey Weitzeil’s usual habitat is the swimming pool.
But the Cal swim star and two-time 2016 Olympic medalist is a virtual fish out of water these days, her training shut down along with the 2020 Games in Tokyo by the worldwide COVID-19 crisis.
The 23-year-old freestyle sprinter says she hasn’t been in the water for more than two weeks and counting, a literal dry spell longer than any she can recall in recent years.
“I have no access to a pool. I'm strictly on land,” Weitzeil said in a phone interview. “It makes me feel a little better that most people are in the same boat. I think 95 recent of people do not have access to a pool right now. They’re all closed.”
All the plans Weitzeil had for a series of big events over the next few months have been tossed upside down: Her senior season NCAA championship meet scheduled for two weekends ago, Cal graduation ceremonies, the U.S. trials from June 21-28 in Omaha, and the Olympic swim program in Tokyo from July 25 through Aug. 2. Each one of them canceled or postponed.
“I saw it coming a while before it happened,” Weitzeil said, referring specifically to the IOC’s decision to reschedule the Olympics to next year. “I was kind of waiting for it to be announced. I honestly think it’s the right thing to do.
“If it continued, it wouldn't be a fair Olympics for everyone, with people finding places to training and everyone in a different place. Having it postponed a year is better for everyone’s mental health and training and physical health as well, not putting anyone at risk.”
*** In this video shot last spring, Weitzeil talks about her plans for training in 2020 prior to the Tokyo Olympics.
Keeping everyone healthy is why Weitzeil has not returned to her family’s home to Southern California after traditional classes at Berkeley ended. Her mother told her, “I feel a little weird turning my child away,” but Abbey’s grandparents are there and no one wanted them in harm’s way.
So Weitzeil and her dog Weylin, a shepherd-Australian Kelpie mix, trekked to Philadelphia to stay with her boyfriend and his family. She’s finishing classes online and doesn’t know exactly when she will return to Berkeley.
“My exposure to the outside world has been walks with my dog or runs,” she said. “I’m just trying to do my part.”
The fact that Weitzeil anticipated these changes and agrees with them doesn’t mean she hasn’t had to swallow disappointment.
Losing the chance to swim one last time as a Cal athlete at the NCAA meet in Athens, Georgia was a big blow.
“I’m really sad,” she said. “I had high hopes for myself at that meet and we had a chance of winning. It’s a real big letdown for a lot of us.”
Even though the NCAA decided to grant spring-sport athletes another season of eligibility, Weitzeil said she is done as a college swimmer. She said she will continue to train under Cal coach Teri McKeever at Berkeley as she prepares for the Olympics next year.
Weitzeil has two more classes to complete in the fall before officially being finished with school, but she had planned to walk in graduation ceremonies this spring. How that eventually unfolds remains uncertain.
By now, Weitzeil’s attention would have turned to the U.S. trials, where she hoped to earn Olympic berths in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events and the relay spots that accompany them.
In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Weitzeil finished seventh in the finals of the 100 free, swam the fastest split on the 4x100 freestyle relay for the U.S. team won a silver medal and set an American record, and earned a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay after swimming in the heats. She was 19 at the time.
Since then, Weitzeil’s career has blossomed further.
At the 2019 Pac-12 meet, she was named swimmer of the meet (and swimmer of the year) for winning titles in the 50, 100 and 200 free individual races and helping Cal to victories in four relays.
Less than one month later, Weitzeil set an NCAA, meet, American, U.S. Open and pool record of 21.02 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle en route to the national title. She also swam on three victorious relays, including the anchor split on the 4x100 free relay despite injuring her right arm the night before.
In December at a meet Minnesota, Weitzeil became the first American woman to break the 21-second barrier in the 50-yard free, swimming 20.90.
“It was really awesome,” she said. “That was a goal I had wanted for a little while so happy I was able to do it before NCAAs got canceled. That would have been terrible.
“For the longest time, I’m sure people never thought a woman would do (sub-21). It was cool to show that women are going faster and faster and faster.”
In fact, Weitzeil believes she could have dropped her mark into the mid-20s this season. “I know my record will broken and that will be exciting,” she said. “But I will always be the first to have done it.”
Her achievements have made Weitzeil a finalist for the Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s top amateur athlete. Other finalists include Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu. Past winners from Cal include Missy Franklin (2012) and Ann Curtis, who was the first swimmer honored in 1944.
For now, Weitzeil is taking the long view. Feelings of shock and disappointment over events in her life that have been trampled by the virus are eclipsed by a sense of relief.
“Part of the emotions is relief over not having the stress,” she said. “There's enough stress right now. Not having the stress about training or how am I going to prepare (for the Olympics), am I really prepared . . . you could use the word relief.
“It’s not canceled. The relief comes in that everything’s a year later. I think everything will be OK.”