Emma Coburn: How I'm Finding Clarity in the Coronavirus Chaos

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Over the last few weeks, as the world suffered through the COVID-19 pandemic, there were growing tensions between the International Olympic Committee and various athlete groups, national governing bodies and nations. The tensions rose, as athletes no longer felt their preparation for the Games was feasible.

Gyms, pools, tracks, and training centers around the world were shut down. Athletes no longer had access to their doctors, physiotherapists, massage therapists and chiropractors. Training groups suspended practice. With nations under complete lockdown, some athletes were unable to leave their homes, while others tried to continue their normal preparation and in doing so, put themselves and their communities at risk. With the Olympics still scheduled to go ahead, some athletes were risking it all to try and prepare. Others were staying inside, anxiously waiting day after day, feeling like their fitness was slipping away.

Finally, this week, it was announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are officially postponed until 2021.

Now what?

This is the question thousands of Olympic athletes like me are asking ourselves.

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While there is uncertainty over what the world will look like on July 24, 2020, the originally scheduled date for the Opening Ceremony, we can confidently say that athlete preparation for the Olympics has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Will international drug testing continue amid lockdowns? With restricted travel and social distancing in place, athletes felt uncertain if drug-testing programs would remain. The CEO of US Anti Doping Authority (USADA) said last week that USADA will continue “mission critical” testing and will ensure advanced protocols will be taken to maintain safety for athletes and the doping control officers, who will wear protective masks and gloves and maintain six feet of space with the athlete when possible.

Internationally, I’m not sure what protocols other nations will have for their anti-doping efforts, but I am relieved that USADA will continue their anti-doping efforts domestically. It gives me hope that the world of clean sport and drug testing can continue, even though so much of athlete preparation and training has been hindered.

Athletes everywhere have been speaking up about how training has been impacted, and in some cases, come to a halt all together. I am the vice president of The Athletics Association, a group formed by two-time Olympic gold medalist Christian Taylor in the hope of gathering a collective voice of track and field athletes globally. We conducted a survey, with 4,000-plus track and field athletes, and found that 87% of athletes say their training has been impacted. 78% percent of athletes said they wanted the Olympic Games to be postponed. The numbers don’t lie. Globally, track athletes wanted postponement. USA Track and Field wrote a letter advocating for postponement. Other national governing bodies like USA Swimming advocated for postponement as well. Countries like Canada and Australia said they would not participate in the Olympics if the Games were held as scheduled. The call for postponement was getting louder and louder over the course of the week. But, just because it is the right thing to do, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to hear.

As athletes, the Olympics are our dream. We train for a lifetime for the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. This dream has become a nightmare, one that we all wish we could wake up from. I know as the news broke, so many athletes were heartbroken to be forced to put their Olympic dreams on hold. I had these dreams as well….I still have these dreams. In September, when we raced the World Championships and I won the silver medal, I had a fire in my belly and felt a buzz whenever we talked about the Tokyo Olympics. I was ready. I knew what I needed to do physically and mentally to make the U.S. Olympic Team and to be standing on the podium in Tokyo. That fire in my belly is now just a tiny spark, but it will grow again.

This is out of our control, and I have found peace and clarity in that. I have not cried, I have not felt anguish or fear. There is nothing I can do except to be positive, be a responsible citizen, and get my mind right for the long road to Tokyo. I have recently learned that what we expect, what we crave and dream about, isn’t always what we will get, no matter how hard we work and no matter how seemingly unfair something is.

Three months ago, my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and it has been a big lesson for my family and I in finding peace amongst the chaos, finding joy in the sad, and finding clarity in situations we cannot control. I am used to working hard for what I want. I set a goal, and I work my butt off to achieve it. Sometimes I fail, but I know I did the best work I could do to make my dreams come true. With my mom, I can’t work away her cancer. With the Olympics, I can’t work away the COVID-19 pandemic. There is peace when we give up control, recognize that life isn’t always fair, and that the only thing we can control is our mindset.

So, the Olympics are postponed. Now what? I am running. Right now, where I live in Boulder, Co., we are allowed to exercise outside, as long as we are six feet apart from others. So yes, I am training. For what, I’m not sure yet. We don’t know if there will be any summer races. We hope at a minimum there will be fall racing. I am logging miles but holding off on adding any intensity into workouts until we get a picture on what the summer will look like. Today, I ran 16 miles with 16x200-meter hill sprints. The goal is to be primed and healthy for when we get the go ahead for racing to resume.

For all of us, including athletes, this is a lesson in patience, selflessness, and gratitude. I know when I line up to race, whenever that day comes, I will be so damn grateful.