Sink or swim for some U.S. athletes in Tokyo Games bid

(Reuters) - The COVID-19 delayed Tokyo Olympics will have opened the door for some U.S. swim team hopefuls and slammed it shut on others, says triple gold medallist Rowdy Gaines, who knows all too well the anxiety of watching a life’s dream slipping away.

FILE PHOTO: 2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Victory Ceremony - Men's 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay victory Ceremony - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/08/2016. Ryan Lochte of USA poses with the gold medal REUTERS/Michael Dalder

A year can seem like a lifetime for an Olympic athlete and swimmers who were long shots on the brink of qualifying for the U.S. team 12 months ago could mature into serious threats by the time the July 23-Aug. 8 Games start in 2021.

At the other end of the spectrum, veterans like 12-time Olympic medallist Ryan Lochte could have faded from the picture.

“Somebody that was young and right on the cusp of making the team will be much more prepared next summer,” Gaines, 61, told Reuters. “And the opposite of that is the athletes hanging on by a thread this summer will be in jeopardy next summer.

“An example of that might be Ryan Lochte, I only use him because everyone knows he is 36 years old, but another year could be a detriment.

“It is not going to be for the faint of heart the next year, that’s for sure. Only the strong will survive so you probably have a pretty good idea who some of those athletes are.”

They include the likes of Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky who, barring any late injury woes, will be expected to bring home the same boatload of medals next year as they probably would have this summer.

However, the stress and uncertainty earlier this year around the fate of the Tokyo Games that drove athletes to sports psychologists is resurfacing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life across the globe.


The anxiety is once again building and Gaines knows that feeling well.

In 1980 he was tipped to win a Michael Phelps-like haul of gold medals at the Olympics except there were no Moscow Games for Americans after a U.S.-led boycott over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Gaines would get his gold four years later at the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games but by then he had been denied the chance to compete in his Olympic prime.

Going into the 1980 Olympics, Gaines was the world record holder in the 100 and 200 metres freestyle and a threat to win four or five gold medals, which would have elevated him to a position as one of the greatest American swimmers of all time.

“I can sympathise with what they are going through,” said Gaines. “I know what it feels like to have something so important to you go away. The emotions that have been denial, anger and grief are now into acceptance.

“The very best, and it was the same for me in 1980, are going to be motivated by it.

“There are a bunch right now I know are going to be there in 2021 and some are not quite there mentally to handle this type of setback and it is going to be an uphill battle for them.”

Gaines said swimmers have had to push the reset button and deal with uncertainty over training, where to find meets to sharpen their competitive edge and how to earn money to live on.

“Everybody is in uncharted territory here, which is how to train and the logistics of where do I go for my next swim meet,” said Gaines. “We just don’t know.

“People can get in shape easily enough, go through the pain physically, it is going through the pain mentally, emotionally that’s hard. The good news is it is true for everybody. At least it is going to be a level playing field.”

Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris