It was as much a show of fierce resolve as an acknowledgment of heartbreaking reality.
For two years now, gymnast Alec Yoder has had a whiteboard in his apartment with the Olympic rings and the words “the dream.” above a list of competitions for which he hopes to qualify. On Tuesday morning, he erased the last zero in Tokyo 2020 and replaced it with a “1.”
The date of the Games has changed. The aspirations they inspire have not.
“As an athlete, you have the outlook of, `This sucks. But it is what it is. What can we do to make it better in the future?’ ” Yoder told USA TODAY Sports. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to change it. If we dwell on it, that affects our chance to make that team the next year.”
Steele Johnson, a diver who won a silver medal for the United States at the 2016 Rio Games, woke up Tuesday morning to texts from friends saying they were so sorry that the Summer Olympics had been postponed. They knew how hard it had been for Johnson, 23, and his wife, Hilary, to make ends meet as he pursued a gold medal in Tokyo.
When he read the news, Johnson said, he felt it in the pit of his stomach.
“We’ve had a very, very tough year financially,” he said. “I don’t know if I could keep up a lifestyle like this for another 12 to 15 months of just diving without getting a full-time job. It’s hard to think about making more sacrifices than we already have.”
For days, athletes had been voicing concerns about the 2020 Tokyo Games, worrying that they were jeopardizing their health and the health of others if they continued training while many of their countries were locked down and restricting activity.
In polls and surveys conducted over the weekend, athletes voted in overwhelming numbers in favor of a postponement.
Yet when the news finally came, it was the ultimate mixed blessing: a lifeline for some and a new set of challenges that may be insurmountable because of financial, age or health issues for others.
Like so many Olympians, Johnson, who has a degree in film and video studies from Purdue, lives on a tight budget that has no place for cuts. He and his wife don’t buy new clothes. At home in Indiana, their grocery bill must stay within $60 a week. He has worked nights as a driver for the food delivery service Grubhub. His wife is a wedding photographer.
After he won a silver medal at the Rio Games, Johnson could not secure a sponsor. He receives a small stipend for being on the national team, but now will look for work that can carry him through to the new, unspecified date for the Games in 2021.
“I’m just going to have to be creative,” he said. “I will do what I can to support my family and pay for our food and our dogs’ food, but it’s going to be a challenge.”
Kate Nye’s competitive weightlifting résumé reads like a dream, a surefire shot straight to the top. Just two years after her 2016 competitive debut, Kate won the 2018 national championships and took home a silver at junior worlds. In 2019, she went one better, winning the junior and senior world championships in the snatch, clean & jerk, and total for the women’s 71 kg division. She broke five snatch records and two total weight records along the way, becoming, at 20, the youngest American to win world titles in women’s weightlifting. In February 2020, she was named the International Weightlifting Federation’s Best Woman Lifter of 2019, the first American to be given that honor. “It’s been nothing short of incredible,” Kate said.
Kate was achieving the kind of success that athletes dream of, yet that journey painted only part of the picture. Even as she took home world titles and world records, progressed to heavier and more challenging lifts, she was dealing with unexplained depressive spirals that would leave her unmotivated for days, in the gym and in school at Oakland University, where she studies health sciences.
“Some days I just didn’t want to weightlift at all,” she told POPSUGAR. “I started doubting myself, saying a lot of negative self-talk.” Kate had been dealing “for literally years,” she said, “with what I thought was depression and probably anxiety.” Her struggle to lift was a part of that. With depression, she said, “Even things you love start to become something you don’t care about anymore.”
In the Summer of 2019, her symptoms came to a head. “It was getting to the point where my depressive episodes were getting a little scarier, a little more intense,” Kate said. Her husband convinced her to see a mental health professional. “And then things just came to light.”
The diagnosis came in: Kate was struggling with bipolar II disorder, which is characterized not only by depressive episodes like the ones she’d experienced but hypomanic episodes as well. For people with bipolar II disorder, a hypomanic episode can just feel like a really good day. In retrospect, Kate could pick out some of those moments, days when “I felt like I was on top of the world. I was capable of anything, weightlifting-wise and school-wise.”
It was a relief to have a diagnosis, Kate said, but it also threw her for a loop. “The first thing that came to my mind was denial, as well as, ‘I’m crazy,'” she remembered. She knew that didn’t make sense: “I wouldn’t have called myself crazy the day before, but I have this one diagnosis and then I consider myself not normal.”
She was given a medication to treat her bipolar II, a prescription that “changed my life,” Kate said. She felt happier, more stable, and could have easily moved on with her weightlifting career and her education while continuing to take care of her mental health privately. But when she thought about her first reaction to the diagnosis, that feeling that she must be “crazy” now, she realized the inaccuracy and danger of that reaction. “You know what?” Kate remembered thinking. “This is not OK.”
Kate decided to go public with her diagnosis in a heartfelt Instagram post last August. “I was too proud to get help for far too long,” she wrote. “I felt weak for thinking I needed help, but honestly it has taken a weight off my shoulders.” She shared her story, Kate said, for the sake of others dealing with mental illness. She wanted them “to remember that they’re still the same person they were, now they just have the means to know how they can get help,” she explained. “It doesn’t make you crazy or anything. It doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
Kate finished out that year with another few world titles under her belt, a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Sports list, and most importantly, at a better place with her mental health as she looks towards the 2020 Summer Olympics. “It all happened for a reason,” she said. With a proper diagnosis and the right treatment, “it all worked out. I’m grateful for that.”
Raboutou started young too. She comes from a family of climbers in Boulder, Colorado, where her mom, a former champion, runs a gym. She’s been climbing since before she can remember. Condie noticed her for the first time at a national competition in 2010: “This girl was a lot younger than me, and just crushing everything.”
As the sport has increased in popularity, teenage girls are emerging as its new stars. Their superior weight-to-strength ratio may give them an edge. In 2016, teens swept the women’s national championships, and Raboutou herself set several records before she turned 12. They’re also gaining on men. Last fall, a nine-year-old girl became the youngest person to scale Yosemite’s 3,000-foot rock formation, El Capitan.
At the Olympics, climbers will compete in three disciplines: lead climbing, where they ascend as high as possible in six minutes; speed, where two climbers race side by side; and bouldering, where they try to complete the most routes possible of the same wall in four minutes. “It’s not just about being strong,” Raboutou says, “but solving the problems in front of you.”
The preparation is grueling. In Colorado, Raboutou practices for up to 11 hours a day, fine-tuning runs, doing mobility exercises for her shoulders, and to build strength, dangling by three fingers from a ledge . . . and then doing pull-ups.