Paralympic athlete Erik Hightower poses for a picture in his Team USA shirt and a helmet.

Edition 21 | Summer 2020

How adaptive athletes have handled the challenges of COVID-19

By Sarah Farrell

As 2020 began, so too began the countdown to the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Just 236 days of training left–the culmination of more than three years of hard work for hundreds of athletes.

For Erik Hightower, a wheelchair racer born with spina bifida, the games represented more than just a chance to compete on the biggest of stages.

They were to be his swan song.

The 34-year-old had plans to retire after the Tokyo games, but in mid-March, that all changed.

First, the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, where Hightower lived was shut down. Then, the 2020 Paralympic Games were postponed until Summer 2021. All because of COVID-19 concerns. The two-time Paralympian had a difficult choice to make: step away from the sporting world and retire as planned or push himself mentally and physically to train for one more year.

Hightower was part of a newly-formed Universal 4x100m relay team. A team that had won gold at both the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, and the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. He knew that this team, this Paralympics, could be his only shot to get on the podium. It was an opportunity he could not pass up.

“I was gonna retire at the end of [2020], but then it’s like, ‘Well I’m on this relay team. We’ve proven to be really good. If I still end up retiring, am I going to regret not being on that relay team watching them from my couch?’” Hightower said.

Hightower is just one of thousands of Paralympic, amateur and collegiate athletes facing a new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Transition

In March, the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, home of the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field team, closed the campus facilities to all athletes. They closed the gym, the cafeteria and the track.

“That was the last time I’ve been on a track,” Hightower said.

For an athlete who has spent decades running around that oval, that’s an excruciatingly long time to be away from the one thing necessary to your sport.

Photo depicts track and field Paralympian Kym Crosby lifting a weighted ball.

With the world around him closed, Hightower and his wife, fellow track & field Paralympian Kym Crosby, had to figure out where to go.

“I made the decision to come home [to Northern California],” Crosby said, “which was actually tough because I am not with my husband right now. My husband is actually in Arizona with his family. And we made the tough decision to be away from each other for our training’s sake because it’s easier for me to train here, and easier for him to train where he’s at.”

In his hometown, Phoenix, Arizona, is where Hightower, like other athletes around the country, began to accept that he would have to make the best out of a bad situation for the long haul.

Social Distanced Training

For most athletes, training is done individually, in their homes. And it’s a far cry from what they’re used to.

Hightower’s daily training goes a little bit like this:

– Wake up at 6 a.m. to beat the blistering Phoenix summer heat

– Put in about 4-5 miles of road work a pretty different task for the 100m sprinter

– Use the hills in his neighborhood to work on hand speed training

– Add in some weight training with dumbbells he purchased online as well as a bench his brother had.  

One of the hardest transitions for professional and adaptive collegiate athletes has been the closure of gyms around the country. A training staple for athletes in every sport; gone. And for adaptive athletes, it means the loss of specialized equipment like machines they can roll into for use.

Wheelchair tennis athlete, Jason Keatseangslip bats a tennis ball back toward his opponent, who is not in frame.

Jason Keatseangslip is a former wheelchair tennis player at the University of Arizona. He has a T11-12 complete spinal cord injury, so it has been hard for him to adapt his workouts to use free weights instead of the adaptive equipment and weight machines at the Disability Resource Center gym on the UArizona campus.

Some athletes in non-contact sports, like wheelchair tennis, have found a way to socially distance and return to in-person practices.

Bryan Barten is the head coach of wheelchair tennis at the University of Arizona. He is also a touring professional on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit, and Paralympian. Just like his players, he is separated from his coach right now. So he has relied on local, Tucson-based hitting partners that he knows are practicing safe social distancing.

“When we play, we’re washing our hands with hand sanitizer,” he said. “We’re trying not to touch the balls. To pick them up with the racket. And obviously you’re staying a long ways away from each other.”

For athletes in contact sports like rugby and basketball, that return to in-person training is harder. You certainly cannot play a socially distanced game of wheelchair rugby.

Bryan Barten, head coach of wheelchair tennis at U of A, plays wheelchair tennis.

Continuing to Communicate Virtually

At the end of March, people around the country were adjusting to a new normal. Work meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Virtual happy hours and group messages with friends and family. Quarantining away from people, and living in a virtual world.

Colleges ended in-person classes and closed their campus to students. So adaptive athletes from programs like the University of Arizona and San Diego State University fanned out and returned home.

“You know the life they knew as a student-athlete has totally changed,” Barten said. “They’re doing all their education online now. They went home. They’re back with their families. We did school from their homes, and they had to pick up their whole lives and move…I’m in communication with them every week just checking in. Seeing how they’re doing. Asking how their grades are. ‘How’s your family? Is everybody safe?’”

Professional athletes weren’t far behind. Without access to facilities and in-person training with their coaches, it made sense for many to simply go home.

Instead of meeting in the gym for weight training and conditioning, athletes like Hightower receive a text from their coach with a weekly training plan. They work with their coaches and teammates to figure out the best way to train with what they have around them.

“We’re bouncing ideas off of all of us, our teammates and stuff,” Hightower said. “If you think of ideas that could help other people. We’re like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. We’re all just still thinking outside the box, and giving ideas of what we can do to help each other out.”

Outside of training, athletes and coaches have found a way to use technology to stay connected and check in on one another as well. Using FaceTime to joke around with one another, trying to keep things lighthearted, and build chemistry in team sports like rugby and wheelchair football.

“What it allows me is–as a head coach–is to spend more individualized time with them,”  James Gumbert, head coach of USA wheelchair rugby, said. “I would not have this moment with you [each of my players individually], in this [Olympic] year, had this not happened. But now you’ve got my undivided, full attention for this hour.”

And it’s especially beneficial for his new, young players to have this time to develop and grow with the help of national team coaches.

Mental Health

While this pandemic has certainly presented a lot of physical obstacles for athletes to continue training and competing, it has also tested their mental health.

For Crosby, the real mental challenge came when she got word the Paralympics had been postponed.

The negative thoughts set in quickly. First, of her losing all of this training time, losing the momentum of her success in 2019. She stopped and realized, “This is not you, Kym,” and turned around her mentally about the quarantine through journaling.

“I started listing out the positive things that are coming from COVID,” she said. “One of them, a big one was letting my body heal.”

The physical part of quarantine, going out and staying in shape, is fairly straightforward. It’s the mental side that is difficult Gumbert said. When people can’t see a way out, they begin to feel trapped by the situation. He reminds his players that we were all put here to not just exist, but to live. And often quotes their team saying, “Embrace the suck.”

“It’s like when a referee makes a bad call, you just embrace the suck,” Gumbert said. “It’s gonna happen. And it’s your reaction to that, that helps you actually get through it on the other side.”

Next Steps

The return of in-person training and competition looks different for every single sport. And it changes almost daily depending on the number of cases and guidelines in each city.

Some organizations, like Angel City Games in Los Angeles, have made the transition to virtual competition for 2020.

At the collegiate level, a lot is still up in the air. But the fact that adaptive athletic programs don’t fall under NCAA jurisdiction and are independent of the school athletic department in many cases gives adaptive programs the ability to create policies and guidelines with their athletes in mind.

Ahkeel Whitehead, program director of adaptive athletics at San Diego State University, is writing the policy for his program utilizing information from the CDC, university leadership and input from his coaches.

Track and field athlete photographed in action.

Mike Beardsley, head coach of the University of Arizona men’s wheelchair basketball team, added that his program will be working closely with a university doctor to establish testing and safety protocols when his athletes return to campus.

Each university will make a decision based on what is best for their student-athletes. And it will most certainly vary from state to state.

For national teams, like USA Wheelchair Rugby, resuming in-person training is more complex. While their training center at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama, could serve as a “bubble,” players live nationwide. Travel is a significant concern for Gumbert. But even if they find a way to get all of the players safely to Alabama for camp, keeping them safe while they’re there presents a whole new set of obstacles.

There is no set guideline in place yet, but Gumbert believes quarantine is the key. All equipment, chair included, go into quarantine with the players when they arrive at the camp bubble. After testing and 14 days, players could, theoretically, safely compete against each other on the court even with all the contact that takes place in rugby. It’s a model that other professional leagues like the NBA and MLS have instituted to restart competition.

A task force at U.S. Quad Rugby Association (QSQRA) determines guidelines and policy about resuming in-person practice.

Amateur teams at Centers for Independent Living, like Ability360, have also been trying to figure out what a return to in-person practice may be. In hard-hit areas, like Arizona, gyms remain closed, and the heat prevents a lot of outdoor practice. For the Phoenix Wheelchair Suns and other teams at Ability360, the plan is to introduce virtual training, said head coach Nick Pryor. This gives teams the option to work with the staff strength and conditioning coach together.

Resident Paralympic athletes like Hightower and Crosby now follow the guidelines set forth by the USOPC (U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee). They have now reopened facilities with strict quarantine, testing and social distancing guidelines in place for all athletes.

Both Hightower and Crosby were excited about the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center opening its doors in June.

“A lot of us were like, ‘Well, we’re gonna hang off for probably a month and see how [the training center’s] process is going. And how they’re testing [everyone]. How athletes actually came back and got tested,’” Hightower said. “I don’t want to be there right away and be exposed to all of these athletes coming back that might test positive.”

The couple hopes to reunite soon, and return to some semblance of normal training for the remainder of the year.

The bottom line is that no one can predict what the world will look like a month from now or even a week. In one fell swoop, COVID-19 has changed the face of adaptive sports as we know it.

There isn’t a coach, program director or player with a blueprint regarding when and how to resume in-person training and competition. There is an overwhelming desire to put safety first throughout the adaptive sports landscape, even if it means holding off in-person training and competition a while longer.

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Sarah Farrell

Sarah Farrell | Writer | @thesarahfarrell

Sarah Farrell holds a master’s degree in sports journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in sports management from Trinity University. She is a Texas native who has fallen in love with hiking the Arizona wilderness.

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