In the early days of the pandemic, Morgan Hurd was walking down a street in Philadelphia during a Black Lives Matter protest, when a man walking across the street yelled something along the lines of, “Go back to China!”
She picked up her pace, not wanting a confrontation. But, she kept thinking, “I’ve lived here all my life, where do you want me to go?”
That wasn’t the first time Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion in gymnastics, noticed hostility towards her identity. Ever since the pandemic began, she observed increased looks of disdain at grocery stores, like she had done something wrong just because she was of Chinese descent.
Hurd, 19, wasn’t sure exactly what to do. But she started amplifying Asian voices on her social media, calling attention to the recent violence against her community. She became vocal about her own experiences and fear and attended protests.
“I found my voice, the urgency to stand up for human rights, and so I could never think of 2020 as a year wasted,” Hurd said.
It would be impossible to outline what March 2020 to March 2021 meant to sports, to America or even the world. For Olympic athletes — whose opportunity on the world stage comes every four years — the past year involved a precarious dance between unending questions and cautious optimism. The Tokyo Olympics were postponed exactly a year ago. On Thursday, finally, the torch ceremony begins. This tumultuous year has given many athletes a chance to re-evaluate their priorities and purpose.
For three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, that meant moving to Nevada so she and her family could focus on building a more sustainable life for themselves. For diver David Boudia, this time meant perspective — that as much as the dream is to win an Olympic medal, nothing is as important as a healthy mind and body. And, for the U.S. women’s soccer team captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, it was about finding her voice as a new captain, and standing up for bigger systemic changes in America.
Adapting to Olympic postponement
What am I working for?
During last spring’s strictest lockdowns, with so much uncertainty around competition and training, athletes spent a lot of time asking themselves that question. They had prepared for years — sometimes decades — for an Olympics that had now been postponed.
In March, Hurd created a makeshift home gym with a low beam and floor bar so she could still do some very basic drills. But with gymnastics, even a few days away from intense training changes the way the body moves. She felt like she was trying to walk against the direction of a snowstorm.
“Since I started training at 3, there was never a time I wasn’t completely pounding every day, so I think that was nice for my body, but I kept thinking, have I been doing this my entire life for nothing?” Hurd said.
Boudia, 31, had switched to springboard from 10-meter platform diving a year before, earning fifth at the 2019 world championships in his new event. When he lost training time to COVID shutdowns and later to minor foot surgery, he felt like he was starting from scratch.
“I always thought jumping from a three-story high board into water was the toughest thing to do, but I’ve changed my mind, springboard is way harder,” he said. “It is all about foot placement and it happens in seconds.”
As somebody who has struggled with depression throughout his diving career, one thing became certain to him — 2020 was the year where he focused on his mind more than his body.
“It will take weeks to get back to the sport even if you take one or two weeks away from diving, but one of the things I’ve worked extensively on is what can I do away from the pool that’s going to help me excel in the pool,” Boudia said. “If I can hunker down and control my heart rate, if I can visualize a path forward, there’s as much training I can do away from the pool — and that’s what has kept me going.”
Sometimes, it was simple things like pausing what he was doing and looking out the window. “We’re one speck in this large planet. It’s going to be okay,” he’d repeat to himself. That would make him feel more in control.
Other times, it was about focusing on the little victories outside of the pool — like having a good strength session. When he paused to place emphasis on the little things, he no longer felt daunted by the task of working back into peak shape, whenever the Olympics did happen.
Boudia had a realization a few weeks into lockdown with his wife and three children: His kids (ages 6, 3 and 1) were going to have such a different perspective on the pandemic. “To them it’s like, ‘Wow, Daddy is always around, this is so fun!'”
That changed the way he looked at life entirely. Being around his kids made him think of his Olympic journey differently. “‘Am I content at the end of a day?’ That’s more important to me now than ever before,” he said.
Walsh Jennings and her husband, Casey, watched their kids suffer as the world shut down, schools closed, and sports seasons were abruptly canceled. They decided to move from Manhattan Beach, California, to her parents’ house in Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. There were fewer people, and hence fewer restrictions. They were able to live more of their lives outdoors, and their mental health improved. Then, they decided to buy the house next to her parents — Walsh Jennings, 42, could train in Lake Tahoe and her family was so much happier here, so why not, she thought.
Life felt oddly clear to her during the 2020 chaos, she said. She worked to be a good human and she worked to be the best athlete she could be. Every day was a pursuit towards those two goals. Was she a good mother to her children that day? Was she a good wife? Did she train to the best of her ability that day? Those are the questions she focused on. And that shifted her attitude from “Oh god, everything is awful,” to “I’ll be ready when the Olympics does happen,” she said.
Finding bigger purpose during the pandemic
As the world continued in turmoil, Olympic athletes had much more time to sit with their emotions and thoughts. For some, that meant rethinking their life’s goal, and for the others, it meant finding clarity in things outside of their sport.
After months of restrictions, the U.S. women’s soccer team played the Netherlands in a friendly game on Nov. 27, 2020. Sauerbrunn, 35, along with nine other starters, knelt for the national anthem, while wearing jackets emblazoned with Black Lives Matter on the front.
Weeks before, in a podcast conversation on Just Women’s Sports with teammate Kelley O’Hara, Sauerbrunn said, “It has been a long time coming, and in a way I feel we’ve failed the Black women on our team, in our program and our Black supporters by not being more aware to this fight. I’m glad we came together, and I’m glad we got all the Black women together and as a team and a small group decided what we could do to bring more awareness to BLM.”
Ever since, she has been vocal in the fight against racism, both in interviews and on social media.
Sauerbrunn didn’t know then, but in a few months time, she would take over as the captain of the U.S. national team, and she would think back to how 2020 would end up shaping her voice as a captain. She was an introvert, a reluctant leader, but she’s learning how to empower her teammates. She is working her way through Sam Walker’s “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.”
“Some traits that you wouldn’t give to a captain actually are the ones that make captains the most effective,” she said of the book. For her, that meant standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement, and leading her team with science about health and safety during the pandemic.
Hurd became vocal in fighting for the Asian American community facing increased racism owing to the pandemic. She posted on social media, had conversations on Zoom and strived to be someone who could answer questions from people outside of the community. She also started marching with the Black community during several Black Lives Matter movement protests in 2020.
Hurd, who was adopted from Wuzhou, China, when she was 11 months old, found a Facebook group called Subtle Asian Adoption Traits, a group for adopted Asian American kids. She has weekly Zoom sessions with her new friends about navigating being an adoptee and finding their identity in America.
As with other athletes, 2020 was the year Hurd realized she is always going to be an activist, and a loud supporter of the marginalized communities. “You can have your political differences, that’s fine, but when it comes to basic human rights and basic human decency, then that’s where I really draw the line — that’s not a political belief, that’s just the humane thing,” she said. “And hopefully, I can continue to educate people throughout my entire life and inspire other people to speak up as well.”
Encountering new perspectives
For Walsh Jennings, 2020 brought controversy after she published a long Instagram post in September, in which she talked about going to a grocery store without a mask, calling it “a little exercise in being brave.”
The post received both supportive comments and strong pushback, including from U.S. volleyball player Jennifer Kessy who said, among other things, “I can’t believe how selfish this entire post is … You have traveled the world enough to know what freedom is and isn’t.”
Walsh Jennings apologized a day later, adding that she shouldn’t have started such a nuanced conversation on social media.
“I think one of the most beautiful things about America is the concept of liberty and personal accountability,” she told ESPN when asked about the post. “And I just thought it could be a slippery slope, if we give up our civil liberties so easily, and I’m like, ‘Let’s just think about this.'”
“I created this poop storm, and it affected my family and affected my companies and affected the people who support me in my companies. And it was really sad. And it’s kind of like everything that’s going on right now. You know, people getting canceled, and people just choosing sides. I don’t believe in sides. I don’t believe in labels … When I was really just trying to say, ‘We’re OK, we got this. You’re so strong. You’re built to handle all of this.'”
In hindsight, would she have posted on Instagram, knowing how her words affected people?
“My views haven’t changed, I believe in what I believe in — my life experience tells me that,” she said. “I feel like one of my jobs is to [empower], and encourage humans, I just really believe we’re all capable of doing crazy, wonderful things. And that kind of silenced me, which makes me sad, because I feel less authentic,” she said.
Looking ahead to a possible Olympics
Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee released a “playbook” to ensure a safe and healthy Tokyo Olympics — but it left a lot still undecided and uncertain. Late last week, the IOC announced that fans from abroad will be barred from this year’s Olympics, and the 600,000 tickets sold to foreign fans will be refunded. The officials stated that the risk of foreign spectators was too great for Japan.
Boudia thought that the most effective strategy outlined in the playbook was the part that talked about creating bubbles within a sport, to ensure every athlete is safe throughout the competition, sort of like the NBA bubble.
But he still has questions. He doesn’t see it playing out well if fans (even Japanese fans) are allowed inside. “I hope that they would look at the Olympics and make a decision based off of what’s most important for the world instead of how are we going to gain our money back,” Boudia said. “I think it’s going to be extremely hard to have the Olympics with the fans in the stands. And, yeah, logistically, I don’t see how that’s going to work.
Hurd and Sauerbrunn shared Boudia’s concerns about any fans being allowed into the competitions.
“How can you be sure that everyone has followed proper protocols or tested negative or got the vaccine or whatever they would be requiring?” Hurd said.
There’s also the added unfairness of qualifications. Some athletes have already qualified for the Olympics a year ago, while some are waiting to qualify, and that’s a huge burden on athletes, especially considering how little consistent training they’ve had in the past year, Sauerbrunn said.
Despite the varying concerns, the athletes had one common goal — to concentrate on the small steps that will help them in their path to the Olympics.
“If we focus so much on a destination, we’re just going to jam ourselves up, our focus is going to be so much on, ‘I have to do this to get to there’ instead of ‘What do I need to do today only to accomplish those goals?,’ and then it becomes about the process,” Boudia said.
He is working on building his strength and conditioning leading up to his first event in April. “It feels like I’m still playing catch-up, but I hope to be on track as we get closer to July,” he said.
For Sauerbrunn, who has been training with her team since last fall in a controlled environment with regular testing, the focus for the next few months is shifting from conditioning to safe playing situations. Just because they are able to play again doesn’t mean the anxiety is miraculously gone — because the pandemic is still here, she said.
Walsh Jennings has jumped back into training full-time and is getting ready for pre-Olympics tournaments. “I feel safe and comfortable traveling, I’ve done my research and I know we will be in the best hands there,” she said.
After a national team camp in mid-March, Hurd’s focus will be on preparing for the U.S. Classic in May, and U.S. nationals and Olympic trials in June.
“It would mean absolutely everything,” Hurd said, on competing at the Olympics. “This has been my goal my entire life. Not only have I, but so many people in my life, have sacrificed so much for me on my journey, so I want to make it worth it and not let them down.”