N.C. A&T track athletes keep training despite disappointment of delayed 2020 Summer Olympics
They have to recalibrate workouts and meet schedule to prep for July 2021
With the 2020 Summer Games postponed until July 2021, two North Carolina A&T State University track and field athletes who had high hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team must now continue to prepare under the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have produced Olympic track and field athletes for generations, some of the most well-known being Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles, from Morehouse College and Wilma Rudolph, gold medalist in the 1960 Games, from Tennessee State. And legendary coach George Williams of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, has coached more than 40 Olympians over his career.
Kayla White, 23, a graduate of N.C. A&T, is training to compete in the 100-meter dash and hopes to be one of those HBCU Olympians. She’s trying to stay fit, stay focused and not let her hard work go to waste.
“I got a chance to watch the 2016 Olympics, but I didn’t have the times to qualify to go to the trials,” White said. “But when I watched it, I knew from that moment on I have to start training now, so I’ve been pretty much training since I got to college in 2015.”
That training has already made her an NCAA champion, having won the 200-meter indoor title in 2019 with a time of 22.66 seconds. She was runner-up in the 100 meters outdoors, where she ran her best time of 10.95 seconds.
A lot goes into training, practices, meets and competitions, all playing important roles in preparing an athlete for international competition and the Olympics.
White said her first meet was supposed to be held March 21 at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, and once it was canceled, others followed. That’s when she sensed that the postponement of the Olympics was soon to come.
“For a while, they were saying that it was still going on. Then USA Track & Field got all the athletes together to voice our concerns about having the Olympics at this time being that we don’t have any meets to run to get ready for them,” said White. “The night before they officially postponed, they sent us all an email.”
If those meets were canceled but the Olympics went on, White said, she would not have been comfortable competing in the Olympics.
“Meets, they get you in shape for the bigger picture. So, if I don’t get that experience of the crowd and running against some of the fastest people in the world, I question if I am ready.”
Mental conditioning is just as important as physical conditioning for athletes. White’s coach makes sure that he keeps that in check by helping his athletes keep a positive outlook on this situation.
“There’s a lot of things I can do in my house. I have bands. I have weights. So far I’ve woke up every morning and do abs or body weight squats and that’s beneficial to me because in this downtime I can get stronger.”
Trevor Stewart, 22, who also trains with White, is a senior at North Carolina A&T from Lorton, Virginia, and is majoring in liberal studies.
“Where I live now is basically in the country, so what I do is jump around the outside perimeter of my house and other at-home exercises to stay in shape,” he said.
Stewart’s events are the 400 meters (personal best 44.25) and the 200 meters (20.27).
Stewart had made the USA Track & Field team but needed a couple of meets this season to solidify his spot. He also struggles with asthma, which is exercise-induced, and has worked hard since he was younger to be successful despite his condition.
“Until this whole pandemic started, I was fine,” Stewart said, “until they said that my asthma was starting to mess with my respiratory system. So since indoor is a dry climate, like most indoor track facilities, I had to get a new inhaler to keep my lungs expanded.”
Despite his challenges with asthma, Stewart keeps a positive outlook and has that same outlook toward the pandemic.
“The main thing I want to stress is that having a level head and understanding just like everything else, this too shall pass,” he said.
“My coach pretty much said stay patient and look at it from a positive standpoint,” White said. “This is another year for us to get better and stay a little bit stronger than we did when we started.”
Duane Ross is the director of track and field programs at N.C. A&T. He has been training athletes for eight seasons and training Olympic-caliber athletes for the past three years. Ross said the postponement is something coaches have to adapt to as well.
One of Ross’ athletes from this year Akeem Sirleaf had already qualified for the Olympics for Liberia in the 200 and 400 meters.
“Things were going according to plan. Training was going well,” Ross said. “But obviously with everything going on, things had to come to an abrupt end.”
Ross said that when you are a professional athlete and a coach, you always have to be prepared to adapt. Some competitions are more important than others. On the ground at meets, things change. He also stressed remaining focused, with tunnel vision on goals amid the chaos.
“Although the competitions were canceled and they delayed the announcement of the Olympic Games, we were still training as if there was still going to be an Olympic Games,” Ross said. “That’s the only way to train. For track and field athletes, you cannot train just to be training. There has to be a goal in mind or a competition in mind or an end result. So, we kept training as if the Olympics were being held but obviously, they were canceled, so it’s time to move on.”
At the end of the day, Ross said, the athletes’ safety should always be the top priority.
“Their safety is more important. I was actually relieved when they did cancel the Olympics, because there’s just so much going on in the world. There’s always going to be another track meet. There’s always going to be another Olympics. As athletes and coaches, we just have to prepare. But first and foremost, I would want them to sit still and let this pass and take care of their family and make sure everyone is safe.”