Inside USA Swimming's Push to Postpone the Olympics—And What It Means for the Athletes Now

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The push to postpone the Tokyo Games began in a backyard pool in Atherton, Calif. That is where Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, Olympic gold medalists and global swimming icons, have found themselves in recent days.

It was the starkest example of the training chaos enveloping U.S. swimmers. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, schools closed and took their pools with them. The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs—a constant beacon for national team members—went dark. Public facilities, private facilities, everything was shutting down.

On March 16, the International Olympic Committee had taken a stubborn stance that the Tokyo Games should proceed as planned, offering a tone-deaf encouragement for athletes to “do their best” to keep training. And this was the fallout.

The biggest names in American swimming were scrambling to find water, precious training routines disrupted and panic setting in just three months before Olympic Trials. Dozens of contingency plans were explored: a pool in Florida might have some lane space; maybe one in Southern California; did you hear about the health club in Louisville? What if they close as soon as we get there? Every plan eventually fell through.

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“It’s been pretty overwhelming,” said Ledecky on Tuesday. “Every hour, every day, something was changing. I was glued to the phone making calls and sending texts, checking the news. It was kind of hard to be told to ‘do our best.’ We were driving ourselves mad trying to ‘do our best’ for two weeks.”

The U.S. Olympic swimming head coaches recognized the sudden unimportance of sports amid a global health crisis, but they also recognized an untenable training situation. Last Wednesday, women’s coach Greg Meehan and men’s coach Dave Durden talked and arrived at a disappointing but unavoidable conclusion: we should do what we can to push for a postponement of the Olympics.

And thus, a movement was born.

Coaches listened to their athletes and spoke up. USA Swimming listened to its coaches and spoke up, even though it was at cross purposes with the do-nothing stance of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Then USA Track & Field spoke up. And Canada spoke up. And Australia. And USA Gymnastics.

And in the course of five days, the International Olympic Committee and Japan dropped their Stay The Course stance and conceded that it was time to reconfigure Tokyo 2020 and postpone to 2021.

Here is how the movement started:

Meehan and Durden coach at rival Bay Area schools—Meehan leads the women’s team at Stanford and Durden heads the men’s team at California—but they are best friends and former colleagues. (Meehan was an assistant to Durden at Cal a decade ago.) They take the meticulous long-range planning that is endemic to the sport to an extreme—both men have four large one-year wall calendars in their offices. Planning quadrennially is no accident: an Olympic year is always in the picture.

After their discussion last Wednesday, Meehan and Durden looped in USA Swimming. They had a call Wednesday night with managing director Lindsay Mintenko to explain their stance. Mintenko patched in Caroline Kase, coach of the U.S. Olympic open water team.

On Friday morning, the group had a call with the USA Swimming steering committee, which included CEO Tim Hinchey. Later that morning, two conference calls occurred: a USOPC media call, in which the leadership of that organization fell in line with the IOC’s wait-and-see approach; and a USA Swimming call that was open to all national team swimmers and coaches.

The latter call was followed by a paradigm-shifting letter: Hinchey’s public missive to USOPC head Sarah Hirshland, urging a one-year postponement of the Games. It was a strong statement from one of the most powerful groups in the Olympic movement; U.S. swimmers won 33 medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, more than triple the runner-up Australians.

“Our leadership kept hearing from our athletes, Where can I train? What can I do?” said Hinchey. “As it got worse, it became clear that there was no other alternative than to seek a postponement. To have athletes across our membership, including kids who don’t have Olympic Trial [qualifying times] trying to get into pools, that was sending the wrong message in the midst of a health crisis.”

The USA Swimming letter on Friday was the first domino of dissent. Others began falling quickly. By Tuesday morning in America, just four days later, the postponement of the Olympics was official.

“USA Swimming got the ball rolling a bit on this,” Ledecky said. “There are more important things to be thinking about in terms of global health. We should be concentrating on that.”

This was a huge victory for Hinchey and his leadership team—and ultimately for the swimmers in their care. They gauged an untenable situation and became agents of change on a global scale. The athletes’ voices were heard.

But there are no celebrations in the American swimming community today. Starting a movement toward a safe and sane Olympic resolution amidst a global pandemic is one thing; living with that result is another.

“To be honest, I don’t want to gameplan this all over again,” said Durden. “We’ve already prepared for one Olympic Games, and I don’t want to prepare for another one in 16-18 months. But at the end of the day, we’ll step up and get it done.”

This is the reality of the situation in the swimming world: the only thing worse than hitting the reset button on a long-awaited, intensively planned Olympic year would have been pressing ahead with the current timetable. To go from the current chaos to peak preparedness for Olympic Trials in June is like taking the training wheels off a kid’s bike one day and putting that kid in the Tour de France the next.

“You cannot take a week off three months out [from trials],” Durden said. “You just can’t. A week off 13 months out? You could probably get away with that. Three months out? It’s not something you would ever do in a normal Olympic cycle.”

Meehan could see the stress of the situation impacting his undergraduate Stanford team and, even more so, his postgrad group, which includes Ledecky and Manuel. Swimming might be the most routine-oriented, conditioning-dependent of all sports, and the loss of those constants for any period of time can create a confidence crisis. When swimmers are hopscotching from pool to pool and wind up training in someone’s backyard, it’s far from ideal.

“It’s been really hard,” Meehan said. “The stress and anxiety for these young people is pretty severe. Unless you’re involved in it, it’s difficult to understand. Pursuing a dream of making an Olympic team or winning an Olympic medal, it’s hard to understand how much of yourself is poured into that. You have gone to the well every day for a long period of time.

“For athletes who have been training to be their best, going through another year is a hard thing. But that’s better than trying to get to the Olympics this year and not being anywhere near where you want to be.“