For some athletes, the postponement in March of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics had a silver lining. It gave them unexpected time to reflect on their career goals, improve training and prioritize their mental health.
That was the case for skateboarder Jordyn Barratt. She was confirmed to compete on the inaugural skateboarding team in Tokyo. "I would not have been able to work on things unless the Olympics got postponed," said Barratt, 21. "From a mental standpoint, there's stuff that I needed to sit back and think about and write about. I needed to learn and grow more, and that wouldn't have happened unless I had this time to slow down and stop and reflect on things."
Barratt is part of Team Toyota's ambassador squad of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic women athletes, and she thinks the extra year leading up to the Games has allowed her to form relationships and learn from teammates.
Barratt, gymnast Laurie Hernandez, swimmer Simone Manuel, multisport Paralympian Oksana Masters and BMX racer Alise Willoughby of Team Toyota talked with espnW about how this pandemic and postponement have shed light on support systems, mental health and hope.
The athlete interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
On the strength of support systems:
Jordyn Barratt: My support system is everything. My mom is my biggest supporter, and I go to her for a lot of things. With that said, I don't have a big family, but I have a lot of really good friends. I've made and created a big family of friends and other people in the skate industry. And they are everything to me right now.
Alise Willoughby: During this time, everyone's emotions are on this roller coaster. Everyone's going to be at a different spot on that roller coaster and at a different time. When you've got people around you that you can look to for inspiration and to bring you back up, or you can be that person for someone else on a day, that's huge. I'm in a unique position. With my husband [former Australian BMX racer and Olympian Sam Willoughby] as my coach and amid the whole pandemic, I've had that support system at home the entire time.
Oksana Masters: I've been quarantining with my boyfriend [Paralympian Aaron Pike], and I'm fortunate to have that constant support system. Also, I've been pretty lucky because my mom's been a great support system, in addition to my friends and my sponsors, like Toyota. One of the coolest things during the whole coronavirus pandemic was that I got to connect with all of my Team Toyota Athletes when everything was shutting down. And that's the cool thing about the power of social media now and the power of Zoom and FaceTime: You can be far away, but you're still connected.
Laurie Hernandez: Beyond my family, who are my ride or die since day one, I have a lot of people in my friend group and a couple of teammates who want the best for me right now. These people are loyal in the sense that they're willing to protect and guard and ensure that we're all safe during these times. And in a time when social media is one of the only things connecting friends, you're able to test out the waters with new friends and old friends and see how well they'll stick depending on how you can stay connected in a crazy time like this. And it seems like most of my friends have stuck around, which has been awesome.
On the importance of prioritizing mental health:
Barratt: I'm a 100 percent believer that mental health needs to be at the forefront of everything. You can't control what happens around you, but you can control what you think about that. And that's kind of been a true test right now with the coronavirus pandemic and with the Olympic postponement.
Hernandez: Mental health has been huge. My mom is a social worker, and my sister is a therapist. I see a therapist. Growing up, I've always been pretty open about mental health. I come from a privileged home in the sense that we openly discussed mental health. It wasn't a taboo thing. And I'm doing my best to be able to allow other people to feel comfort in that same way, especially in the social media space.
Masters: It's really important to embrace change and adapt to the times we're living in for your mental health. I think this can bring out the best in us. It brings out our creativity, determination and work ethic. This pandemic shows that we're not guaranteed anything in life. We're not guaranteed a perfect, stable environment. And it's how are we going to pivot, shift and adapt.
Willoughby: Throughout my career, I've worked with sports psychologists on finding ways to be in the moment. In a lot of ways, I think the world is being forced to live like an athlete at the moment. You have to live in this moment right now. My whole life I've been prepared for something like this -- being here, being now and making the most of each and every day no matter what the outcome is for that day, and there is no guarantee for what you get tomorrow.
On the importance of mental health toolboxes and education:
Simone Manuel: Right now, my biggest focus is education and access. It's important to have difficult conversations and inspire others to have those conversations in their own life. For me, this battle right now, especially if we're talking about racial and social justice and equality for all, is a marathon. We all have to keep fighting -- but allowing people to hear your story and learn from it is how we'll make a difference not only for today but for the generations to come.
Masters: One of the things is to be adaptable, have an open mind and know it's all in your perspective -- how you view the world and how you view your challenges. But at the same time, it's easy to be kind to your neighbor, teammate, family or to yourself. Take time for yourself and mindfulness and breathing, and use social media and your voice as a tool to spread kindness. If you start to view all the positives that you have in your life, all the other negative things are going to become background noise. And the same thing with kindness -- it's a free thing to do.
Hernandez: For me, it's keeping up with therapy. You have to make sure that you're sharing your thoughts with the right people and with people who will handle it with care. But if that's not the case, then finding a creative outlet, or finding any kind of outlet, whether that's exercise, whether that's cooking, if that's writing, whatever that might be for you, that's very, very important.
Barratt: Something that I've always followed is the 24-hour rule. It originally applied to me in winning and losing, but I've kind of taken that into everyday life. If I win a contest, I have 24 hours to celebrate and be so stoked, but after that 24 hours is up, it's time to get back, get my head on straight, start training again and keep motivated for the next contest. If I lose, I have 24 hours to be bummed out and sad and feel bad for myself, whatever I need to do to get my head back straight after that 24 hours and move on and look forward to the next contest. So probably just using that method throughout everyday life right now has been very helpful.
Willoughby: I'm naturally kind of a chaotic person, so maybe I'm thriving a little in this. But I think everything you've done your whole life prepares you to embrace challenges like this. You have to apply the skills you have. The biggest thing for mental health is you can't be complacent. You have to find a reason to get up and put your best foot forward every day and want to be better. Complacency is evil. It can make you lose a sense of purpose, which is not healthy for anyone.
On the power of hope:
Hernandez: Hope, especially in the athletic world, looks like people being as motivated as possible for the next year. I think hope is seeing the best in your future. Yes, the Olympics were delayed. Yes, the world got flipped upside down. But some of the best things come when they're pulled back a little bit and when they're delayed. We didn't have the Olympics this year. It just means that next year it's going to be that much sweeter.
Masters: As an athlete, hope was the fact that there's a new date for the Paralympics. Hope was having that date to mark on my calendar to follow my dreams at the Paralympics and take care of unfinished business from the 2016 Rio Games. I'm so passionate about the next generation of athletes, and my hope right now is to continue to raise awareness for the Paralympics and my sports. I hope that everyone will learn more about the Paralympics and athletes like me during this time.
Willoughby: Hope looks like kindness. It looks like acceptance. It looks like doing your personal best to contribute in a positive way to the community around you. There's so much negativity in the world right now, and you can either feed into it or you can try to be the change, and you can only do that by doing your best each and every day.
Barratt: Getting through the day-to-day things, and being patient and knowing that there is hope, there is a future, there are things that we need to work on right here, right now that we would not have been able to work on unless the pandemic happened.
Manuel: I hope that I'm doing the same for others that Venus and Serena Williams did for me. I looked up to the Williams sisters, with them being minorities in tennis. Their success inspired me to want to go out and be successful in the sport of swimming. And my only hope is that I'm doing the same for others, whether it is in sport or any other extracurricular activity that others may feel empowered to pursue.