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The COVID-19 Crisis: Pro Athletes Recalculate Their Careers

Elite runners plan nearly everything in four-year cycles to take a shot at the Olympics. But what happens when the Games are postponed?

Editor’s note: This is part five of a six-part series about how the running industry is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re investigating several aspects of the sport through the experiences of the women who are navigating and leading the industry.

Part One: How Racing Will Rebound
Part Two: Helping Running Clubs Get Back on Track
Part Three: A Running Brand Leans on Community Building
Part Four: Diljeet Taylor on Coping as a Coach

Every pro track and field athlete took the Tokyo Olympics postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic a little differently. Those who needed more time to build fitness greeted it as good news. Others decided to take a training break. Colleen Quigley, however, had a delayed reaction.

At first, Quigley, a 2016 Olympian in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, maintained a positive attitude after the official word came out that the Games would be moved to July 2021. She was coming off a successful indoor track season, which she capped by running 8:28.71 in the 3,000 meters. Her training group, the Bowerman Track Club, was making plans to move from its Portland, Oregon, base to an altitude camp in Park City, Utah, where it would be easier to run together safely, with more space and less-crowded terrain.

For the first time, Quigley’s boyfriend, Kevin Conroy, and their Bernese Mountain dog, Pie, were able to join her during the stint in the mountains. If the pandemic had an upside, it was the ability to spend more time together, she thought.

“Then, halfway through altitude camp, that’s when it hit me. I was tired all the time. My hip was hurting, and I was like, ‘This sucks. I’m not happy right now,’” Quigley, 27, says. “I was having bad workouts and I was grumpy. I was talking to my mom and she pointed out that it was the week we were supposed to be at the Olympic Trials. Just recognizing that and sitting with it and knowing that it’s something heavy helped me stress less and accept it.”

Pro track runners have short careers in the grand scheme. Most are lucky to get one legitimate chance at making an Olympic team, which is still widely considered the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. They work toward the Games in four-year increments, basing nearly all decisions on what gives them the best shot at making that dream come true.

When the Olympic Trials, the Tokyo Olympics, and most other races were off the table for 2020, it threw the sport and its stars into the unknown. What does it mean to be a pro runner without any measurement of your talent? How are contracts honored? Where will bonuses and appearance fees come from? Is maintaining health and fitness for another year feasible? For women, plans for pregnancy can be put on hold. Older athletes have had to consider delayed retirement.

A lost Olympic year is significant. And one lost to a public health crisis is unique. COVID-19 has wide-ranging effects, but notably can leave damage to the heart and lungs for many survivors, as well as trigger chronic fatigue syndrome. The virus itself has the potential to end an athletic career.

In a sport that isn’t known for much unity and activism when it comes to athlete rights, the pandemic seemed to bring track and field contenders together, letting officials at U.S.A. Track & Field and World Athletics know their concerns regarding safety, fairness, access to training, anti-doping measures, and competition.

The Athletics Association, an organization created by two-time Olympic gold medalist Christian Taylor—with world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn serving as vice president—helped give voice to its members. The group surveyed more than 4,000 track and field athletes and found that 78 percent wanted the Tokyo Games postponed. As a result, USATF joined other Olympic sport governing bodies in urging the International Olympic Committee to make the call.

And although the postponement was what they wanted, the official news still left a lot of professional uncertainty on the table. Contracts with shoe brands, which serve as the primary income for many pro runners, often include reduction clauses when athletes are unable to compete. Other forms of income, like performance bonuses for setting records or meeting other objectives also initially seemed impossible.

But when it became clear that an entire season could go uncontested, especially with travel restrictions around the world, training groups started getting creative, including the Bowerman Track Club. Head coach Jerry Schumacher kept the group in Park City for an additional week while the organization nailed down details for a series of intrasquad meets at a high school track in Portland.

“They were trying to see if we could get our meets sanctioned and we had to meet all these rules from USATF about COVID testing, temperature checks, and the number of people who could be there,” Quigley says. “We also had to find a facility that would even allow us to do it. We were flying by the seat of our pants, taking it one week, one month at a time.”

But when all those details came together, a series of meets during the summer produced some big results, including an American record in the 5,000 meters for Shelby Houlihan (14:23.92) and a 4 x 1500-meter relay world record (16:27.04) for Houlihan, Quigley, Karissa Schweizer, and Elise Cranny.

For Quigley, the chance to compete felt crucial. Her contract with Nike is up at the end of 2020 and she, like most athletes, didn’t want to enter a renegotiation without having met her end of the deal.

“We didn’t want to put ourselves in a situation where the legal team at Nike could say, ‘Well, technically you didn’t meet your contractual obligations for the year, so you’re subject to penalties for that,’” she says. “Everyone has been dealing with that. As athletes, we do have to protect ourselves. We’re going through unprecedented times and we don’t know what our sponsors have to do at the end of the year for their bottom lines.”

Still, the personal bests and racing were also fun—and an opportunity to feel a little “normal” during a time that’s anything but.

“Hey, we worked our butts off at altitude and we want to get something out of that,” Quigley says. “I feel like it was the smartest thing to do to protect ourselves and make sure that we meet our obligations in any way possible, even in a global pandemic.”

For female athletes in all sports, it could be particularly important to stay in the public eye during the COVID-19 crisis, according to a report released by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

“With slashed revenues across the entire ecosystem of sport, clubs, teams and other organizations may fall back to prioritize investments in ‘traditional’ sports—meaning men’s sports,” the policy brief warns. “Arguments about this being more profitable in terms of audience, media coverage and sponsorships may rule the decision-making, leading women athletes to face even more precarious contracts and conditions of training and, in some cases, to the extinction of women’s teams and leagues altogether.”

Quigley, who was a model in high school, has always maintained a heavy social media presence, often branching out beyond the typical track-and-field athlete’s content. During the pandemic, she’s used Instagram to lead at-home strength workouts, she’s shared recipes and cooking demos, hair-braiding tutorials (long-time followers are familiar with her #FastBraidFriday campaign), and she also competed in an ESPN Peloton competition, which she won. She’s used her platform to draw attention to voting and racial justice issues, too. And in conjunction with the intrasquad race series, the Bowerman Track Club also raised $23,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted and poor prisoners who can’t afford it.

The tendency to get involved in a wide array of interests is not just good business sense for Quigley. Depression is a big problem for high-performing athletes, many of whom deal with mental health challenges when their careers come to an end. Michael Phelps and other Olympians recently documented their struggles in the film, “The Weight of Gold.”

“Some athletes don’t know who they are outside of the Olympics. They’ve been training for it sometimes their whole lives and when it’s over, they don’t know what they like outside of their sport,” Quigley says. “I don’t want to end up there. A huge part of my identity is obviously as a runner, but I do like to do so many things…my coach and my old agent used to always get on me about staying focused and not taking on too much, but for me it’s part of my recipe for success and happiness.”

It’s difficult to predict how 2021 will unfold, but athletes like Quigley are proceeding as though the Olympics will go on as scheduled in Tokyo and adjusting their plans into the future. Some people are moving up projects that they usually reserve for the “down year” after the Games, because the condensed time between 2021 and the 2024 Paris Olympics will keep them busy (and tired).

Quigley, for example, is taking time this fall to create a training journal she’s been thinking about publishing for a while.

“I was going to do this after Tokyo, but instead of putting things off, I’ll do it in this extra year,” she says.

Whether another Olympics is in her future or not, Quigley’s desire to continue competing still runs deep. She says that if she can remain sponsored, she sees herself running professionally through 2024.

“This time can be an opportunity if you let it,” she says. “I’m just trying not to let any moments pass me by, because if I can stay healthy, I have a lot more in me that I haven’t tapped into yet. It’s going to be a wild ride between now and Paris.”