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U.S. Olympians improvise training during pandemic as Games postponed

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U.S. Olympians improvise training during pandemic as Games postponed
Team USA's Evita Griskenas has been practicing  rhythmic gymnastics at her home in Orland Park, Ill., during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of John Cheng/USA Gymnastics

July 6 (UPI) -- Though COVID-19 has denied the world's premier athletes a chance to compete in the postponed Olympics in Japan, Team USA's stars are adopting unorthodox ways to stay in shape while on the sidelines.

Working on her rhythmic gymnastics routine, Evita Griskenas' hands sometimes smack her basement ceiling. Her acrobatic arm and leg swings have broken light fixtures in her Orland Park, Ill., home.

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That's because gyms were shuttered, the weather didn't always cooperate for training and Griskenas wanted to keep in shape for competition. She even used a toilet paper roll to practice her world-class movements, juggling and tossing it around her body as she performed her basement routine.

The creative training exercises, she said, pushed her to her limits, even without state-of-the-art facilities and personal coaching.

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Griskenas called the postponement of the Olympics an "annoyance," but said she is optimistic she will compete in the Summer Games in 2021.

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"It's for the best for our safety and the safety of others" to have gyms and training centers shuttered by the coronavirus, Griskenas said. "It led me to be more innovative with the way I work out, which I think worked well in my favor."

Griskenas was the most decorated athlete at 2019 Pan American Games in Peru, with four gold medals and a bronze medal.

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The 2020 Olympic Games, which were suspended March 24, have been rescheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021 -- 16 months beyond what had been planned. Some of the 15,000 athletes who hoped to compete might not do so in 2021 -- even if the Games are held.

Griskenas, 19, found out about the postponement while at a tournament in Lisbon, Portugal. She raced to the airport after the tournament was canceled and returned to the United States amid global lockdowns.

In addition to practicing at home, she utilizes a nearby field, where she said she received odd looks from neighbors who weren't used to seeing outdoor acrobatics performed by an Olympic-caliber athlete.

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"I definitely got quite a few stares while I was out there," Griskenas said. "It's OK, not everyone gets to see a [gymnast] with a hoop."

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The long layoff also gave the incoming Columbia University freshman time to focus on other interests like reading, watercolor painting and Spanish instruction.

Skateboarder bikes for stamina

Skateboarding was to make its Olympic debut this summer, along with surfing, sport climbing and karate. The pandemic prompted skate park closures around the country, which forced Olympic hopefuls to scramble for places to practice.

Team USA park skating hopeful Brighton Zeuner, 15, jumped on an exercise bike in her garage in Orange County, Calif.

"The closest thing [being able to simulate skateboarding] was on the bike," said Brighton, who at 13 became the youngest X Games gold medalist in history in 2017. "If I'm on the bike, I can work up stamina to keep my breath during runs. When on runs for a minute, you run out of breath."

Brighton stepped up her weightlifting routine and rode for miles in place instead of launching herself high above a bowled course in Tokyo, nearly 6,000 miles from her home garage. Still,other competitions lie ahead before the postponed Games.

"When the Olympics have qualifiers, there are a lot more contests you would be doing throughout the summer," Brighton said.

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She said she has started to working out a lot more, "trying to be an athlete."

"It's a lot of work, and you have to keep up and I'm taking that more seriously, skating as much as I can and still having fun," she said.

Brighton said she was "bummed" she couldn't skate this summer in Tokyo, but hopes a roaring crowd next summer helps fuel her to a spot on the podium.

"It's something that all the females and everyone have been working hard for," Brighton said. "Contest skating is all about putting on a show for people. ... The energy is really important to me."

Brighton, who skated daily for four months before the hiatus, has resumed practicing her routine at parks that have reopened.

A lake, a battlefield

Others, like triathlete Katie Zaferes, 31, could practice more easily during the country's lockdown because their sports don't require open facilities or group practices.

"The biggest change for me was the fact that I would normally be at training camp with my group," said Zaferes, whose scheduled camp was canceled due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Zaferes had been viewed as a potential gold medal winner this summer.

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She normally swims five days per week, but pool closures kept her out of the water for two months. Zaferes and her triathlete husband, Tommy, live in California, but traveled to Florida for training camp before the pandemic disrupted preparation.

They then drove a van for 15 hours to Maryland, where they could run and bike. The Zafereses got in swim time with 45-minute road trips to Gettysburg, Pa., where they had access to a friend's lake. They also did their running on the historic battlefield there.

"It was challenging. It was nice when we found out [the Olympics] were postponed because [we didn't need to] rush how to figure out how to train under really challenging circumstances," Zaferes said.

Zaferes finished 18th at the 2016 Summer Games. She broke her nose in a bike accident in August during a test event in Tokyo, but then won gold at the 2019 World Triathlon Grand Final two weeks later. She also won Super League Triathlon Malta in October.

Triathletes from other countries had varying degrees of access to training facilities before the postponement. That made it difficult for Zaferes to keep up with the competition.

The uneven access to preparation still exists because some countries have tighter pandemic-related restrictions than others, and that could be a factor for 2021 Olympic plans.

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Olympic officials from Japan and the United States say economic, logistical and political challenges, and the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine, have the Games in limbo.

A delay until 2024 could end careers for older athletes like Zaferes, who said she likely wouldn't compete then because of her age.

"I wasn't really sure what I was going to do in 2021" after the 2020 Summer Games, Zaferes said. "It was my wiggle-room year. Now [the Olympics] is what I'm aiming for."

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