Maddy Steere was somewhere over the Indian Ocean when her world began to change.
She thought she knew what the next five months would hold. For Steere and the rest of the Australian water polo team, those five months were carefully curated years in advance, every action and every calorie geared toward peak performance in July. That’s the month they’ve had circled on their calendars for years — for some, their whole lives. It’s the month of this summer’s scheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But before the glory of Tokyo, the Australians had a standard training trip to Europe, where they would practice with the Italian and Hungarian national teams. That’s where they were going back in February, back when they touched down in Dubai, not knowing their lives were about to change forever.
In Dubai, a short layover turned into a nightmare, amid news that the coronavirus situation in Italy was rapidly worsening. Throughout an uncertain night at the airport hotel, team officials discussed going straight to Hungary, before awaking players to news that they were returning home immediately.
A month later, the Olympics were postponed, thousands of dreams placed on a year-long hold.
“It’s so hard to put into words how much this has affected all of our plans,” Steere said. “Every single day, for at least the past five years, I have been preparing to make this Olympic team.”
Paul Juda is one of those thousands. Like Steere, the freshman gymnast is among a handful of Michigan athletes potentially destined for Tokyo.
He was one of those whose life changed on that eerie, unforgettable Thursday in mid-March. The day when the Big Ten shuttered its winter and spring sports seasons, with the NCAA following suit a few hours later.
“I was literally making jokes about washing my hands that Monday and then that Thursday, everything was canceled,” Juda said. “So I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ ”
Felix Auböck, a senior from Austria who competed in the 2016 games, realized something was off when he and his teammates on the men’s swimming team were in the pool, while all six of their coaches huddled to the side, a serious look adorning each of their faces. San Marino’s Myles Amine found out when wrestling coach Sean Bormet stopped practice to pull everyone aside and console his heartbroken team. A few blocks north, Juda, too, found out after a standard afternoon practice.
“For the seniors, I cannot physically or emotionally imagine the kind of damage that they felt when they got the news that their last gymnastics practice ever was a day in the gym,” Juda said. “… They lost their season, they didn’t have a senior night, they weren’t able to compete their last meet ever.”
But for weeks, as their teammates returned home to cope with shattered dreams, Michigan’s potential Olympians had to keep training, for an Olympics they knew wasn’t going to happen — at least not in 2020.
That, they agree, was the worst part.
For Auböck, it meant swimming in the ocean off the coast of California after all pools closed. For Juda, it meant doing strength work through sickness — he tested positive for the flu and never got his COVID-19 test results back. For Amine, who was among three Wolverines’ wrestlers taking an Olympic redshirt, it meant continuing his training without coaches or facilities to guide him.
Then, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced what each felt was inevitable. For the first time in history, the Olympics would be postponed, until 2021.
Across the world, Michigan’s Olympians found out like the rest of us — through push notifications, social media and concerned text messages.
“It was a big relief because the Olympics were still going on but we had no pool space, we had nowhere to train, all the gyms were closed,” Auböck said. “… I think it was like a four or five day process until they canceled it and it felt pretty good, I think everybody was pretty relieved.”
That sense of relief, though, isn’t shared by all of Michigan’s Olympians.
Across the world, Steere found out in an email from the Australian Olympic Committee. Like Amine, she took an Olympic redshirt this past year to spend the fall in Canberra and the spring in Sydney, training with the Australian national team. But while Amine plans to return to Michigan in August for his senior year, such luxuries aren’t available in a team sport like water polo.
For Steere, taking another year off school is a mandate if she wants to compete in 2021. It’s an obvious decision for her, but that doesn’t eliminate its drawbacks. It means that her senior season — now pushed back to 2021-22 — is at the whims of the NCAA, and whether it permits a second redshirt. Regardless, she won’t graduate until she’s 25, a thought that gnaws at her.
“It didn’t feel real,” Steere said of the postponement. “And honestly, it still doesn’t.”
Two plain black chairs sit beside the dinner table at Juda’s childhood home, a few miles north of Chicago. Normally, they’re just that — pieces of household furniture.
This month, they’ve been transformed into parallel bars, part of Juda’s makeshift home workout space. A few feet away, he holds himself on the corner of their kitchen countertops, “just to feel some strength.”
He says his parents have been supportive, but it’s still a far cry from the amenities of the sports coliseum in Ann Arbor, where he would typically be training. This, though, is the new life of thousands of quarantined Olympians across the world. It’s the reason Juda says he knew a 2020 Olympics would be impossible long before the official announcement came down, but now, he has no choice but to make the best of it.
“It’s something that you have to realize, well I’m in my house trying to figure out what can still give me that mental preparation and that mental satisfaction of that sport, even when I’m just here,” Juda said. “And that’s the biggest thing, I think, cause there’s gonna be people who come back from this coronavirus break and are gonna be kinda lost.”
For athletes like Juda, the extra year of preparation isn’t without its benefits. In contrast to women’s gymnastics, 18-year-olds competing at the Olympics are rare on the men’s side, without the added strength that older gymnasts have. Now, Juda has more time to develop that strength.
Amine, too, has come around to that school of thought after his initial disappointment.
“The more that I’ve got to think about it, I kinda love the aspect of being pushed back another year,” Amine said. “Because I’m really process-oriented and I have a training mindset so it’s just for me, I think it gives me even more time to develop.”
The drawback, of course, is that he’ll be back at Michigan, wrestling in collegiate style, rather than in freestyle, which the Olympics are contested in. And though he recites the track records of college wrestlers who have gone on to a successful Olympics, there’s the underlying understanding that if a redshirt wasn’t preferable for preparation, he wouldn’t have taken one in the first place.
Auböck, meanwhile, has larger-scale concerns to occupy his mind. He’ll graduate when an email hits his inbox in a few weeks, and then he’ll be out in the world.
For now, he’s staying with his girlfriend in California, but eventually his student visa will expire. Without a new one, he won’t be able to spend the next year training in Ann Arbor — his ideal Olympic preparation. Instead, he may be forced to return home, to a country that has considered preventing its citizens from traveling internationally until the outbreak subsides.
“So far, nothing is set and I have no idea about anything,” Auböck said. “That’s pretty much where I’m at right now, how my next year’s looking.”
Still, from Ann Arbor to Australia, one school of thought prevails above the rest.
“It’s a lot better than it being canceled,” Amine said, chuckling into the phone from his parents’ house in Brighton. “I’ll tell you that.”