It's only been a few months since the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. For many of these athletes, the Games mark a unique experience. From the extra year of training to the no friends or family in the stands in Tokyo, Olympians and Paralympians dealt with a new set of challenges both physically and mentally.
Every four years, these athletes show the world what they've been working towards, with the goal of claiming a spot on the podium and medals. But what happens when all that hard work and extra training doesn't turn out the way you expected? What happens when it's all over and you are left reflecting?
Paralympian and Para triathlete Melissa Stockwell, three-time Olympian and BMX racer Alise Willoughby and Olympian and skateboarder Jordyn Barratt, the last few months have given them time to reflect on what happened in Tokyo. Stockwell, Willoughby and Barratt talked to espnW about what it felt like to not bring home any medals, how they deal with the post-Olympic and Paralympic blues and why they are not letting Tokyo derail their goals for the future.
On competing in Tokyo during the pandemic:
Melissa Stockwell: There was no family, no friends, no one to bring into the village and to show around, all we had was each other. We had to pick each other up when we didn't do well or share in our successes. It was kind of a unique Games in that sense where I felt closer to my teammates than I ever had, which is incredible. And then, of course, there were no real spectators in the stands, but I had some jumbo-sized [poster] heads made of my family -- so I could see their faces in the stands. They were big cardboard cut-outs instead of them there, but it was still incredible. The games were different, but I think just as amazing.
Alise Willoughby: Fortunately, or unfortunately, however, you want to look at it, it was very much the same as those everyday training runs that were done quietly throughout the entire year and through the pandemic. With all the obvious restrictions and lesser numbers and then going to the Olympics with essentially no fans or family or any of the Team Toyota staff. Nobody was able to be there with us like they would normally be. So, we just had our teammates.
There were so many what-ifs added around the [Games] for every athlete. Overall, it was well-managed, and I adapted my routine, trained well, and competed well. It was kind of strange having empty stands. My husband [former BMX rider and Olympic silver medalist Sam Willoughby, who attended Tokyo and is Alise's coach] on the first day was like, "It felt like I was at the local Tuesday night race."
Jordyn Barratt: My experience was beyond expectations. It was such an amazing 10 days or so that I was there to experience the Olympics. It wasn't a normal Olympics, but I think it's an advantage that I didn't know what a normal Olympics was because everyone I talked to that had been to an Olympics said it's not the same. I was just so excited to be there and be with my teammates and my fellow skaters. I was in an environment where so many amazing athletes were in one little area. We're walking around, going to the dining hall, going to practice, things like that. I've never experienced anything like that. It was cool.
On reflecting on their performances in Tokyo:
Willoughby: I didn't advance to the final after getting caught in a crash. And I think it's important to take those on and dissect what happened. I think something that you learn throughout life is, you must be able to kind of roll with the punches, for lack of a better term. And for me, at the Olympics, that very unlucky first crash kind of unfortunately set a tone. But I didn't take it in or watch it back or think about it. I didn't want to think about that leading into my next races.
I had to let that one be what it was and focus on what was ahead of me. The adrenaline while you're racing masks a lot of things, and then you come back, and your adrenaline slows down a little bit and, that hurt a little, that was a little scarier than I probably let on at the time. I think that's what you learn competing for years and years -- if you're physically in a spot that you can keep going, you can't get in the gate with any hesitation about what you're doing. That's when things do go wrong.
Stockwell: It sounds cliché, but no matter what happens when I walk in the door at night or come home after being in Tokyo, my kids, I have two young kids, four and six, don't really care if I medaled or not. And I turn to that in those moments. I'm training all these hours a day to try to medal and stand on the podium. But no matter what, my kids run up to me and give me a big hug. They told me about the five lollipops they ate during my race. They care, but to them, I'm just mom. If I have a bad race, I go back into having that support of family, having the support of other athletes, my team Toyota athletes, we've all gone through these ups and downs in our athletic career and just having that team to fall back on is just so important.
Barratt: I had fallen on a trick that's kind of on the harder side, that I should be making it every time. And then the last run, I made the hard trick, but then fell on the easiest trick of all time. In a contest, weird things like that happen, especially with pressure that's on you. I fell on a 50-50, which is one of the most basic tricks. I would never fall on that normally, but it's just the pressure, and all that kind of stuff gets to you. It gets in your head.
I had a moment right after not making the finals because my first goal at the Olympics was to make the finals. I called a friend and just completely broke down. A good cry goes a long way. I try to give myself, with highs and lows, 24 hours to feel all the feels. Then after that, it's OK, it happened, how do we make it better? How do we fix it? How do we move on? Or how do we learn from it? Things like that. I honestly gave myself like 30 minutes to be super bummed, and then the contest was still going on, and I was super excited to watch all my friends skate, and I cheered them on. Then we had a fun evening. I hung out with everyone. Then I watched the men, all friends that I've known and grown up with forever, compete the next day. It was a roller coaster of emotions.
On dealing with the post-Olympic and Paralympic blues:
Stockwell: The post-Olympic and Paralympic blues are very real because you had this huge buildup, and then suddenly there's nothing. I feel fortunate that I have a full life outside of athletics. I have a family. I'm involved in the mom community here in Colorado Springs, where I live. I've been able to kind of dive right into that and enjoy the things that maybe I missed out on when I was training all the time. Since being back, I've coached my son's cross-country team, his little first grade cross-country team. I'm able to drop him off and pick him up from school. I've enjoyed just being able to be mom.
I feel fortunate that I have this other life outside of athletics. I imagine if it were only athletics, it would be very difficult because there's a sense of not quite knowing what you should do with yourself. Toyota has been such a means of support, not just leading into the games but also after the games. It's an overall good feeling to see and have that support both on and off the playing field.
Barratt: I think I had a moment of the post-Olympic blues. It's just this feeling of being so crazy and stressed before the Olympics, and I honestly didn't even know how much stress I was putting on myself until after the Olympics. Holy cow, I was so stressed out. Why was I so stressed out? Just with qualifying and things like that. It's stressful. You put a lot of weight on your shoulders. It's not even pressure from other people. It's, I think, the pressure from yourself that you put on yourself that affects you. It affects me, at least. It's such a whirlwind before and during and right after. And that, for me, at least, was ... I don't know what's going on next.
Willoughby: I think more so this time around than even previous Olympics, I experienced the [post-Olympic blues]. I'm soaking up everything of the past seven years (her first Olympics was in 2012) because so much has happened for me in that span of time. It's been one thing to the next or one challenge or adversity faced, and it's kind of like, "OK, here we are, and it's finally time to hit the reset button and digest it all." That was a big part of the [blues] for my husband and me.
One night [after the Games], my husband looked at me said, "We're doing this. Pack the car, we're going on this road trip, and we're seeing your family, we're seeing some stuff and just doing something that probably if we don't do now, we won't do," and so packed up my Toyota RAV4 in about 30 minutes. We hit the road for about a month throughout September and it was such a great reset button.
On creating new goals in the months after the Games:
Barratt: My biggest long-term goal is to go to Paris, go to the next Olympics. My goal beyond that is to not scare myself with qualifying again and being on the cusp of qualifying. I want to get an early start on qualifying, get ready early, and be ready for contests because we don't know what's next. We haven't heard anything about qualifiers or contests whatsoever for 2022. So, it's how it is, how it goes with skating, at least for now. With not knowing of any contest, my goal is to be ready and keep skating, keep having a lot of fun and learning new tricks and things like that, and try to enjoy it and not put pressure on myself, just so when contests do roll around, I'm ready.
Willoughby: For me, there's a lot of other competitions beyond the Olympics that I need to focus on. I've got a year-end for my professional series coming up. I'm going for my 10th USA professional women's title, and that's a yearlong series, so those things are going on all the time. Those are big personal big goals of mine.
Stockwell: I'm getting close to the point of creating new goals. I've enjoyed the past two months post-race. But I feel like I'm close. I feel like in a few more weeks, and maybe I'll have that moment of, "OK, what is next"? And it's crossed my mind every so often, and is it Paris? Honestly, I'm not sure. I do know I'm going to join the resident team again at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in January and start training and racing again, and I'll take it race by race. We'll see how it goes, but that drive is still there. I still love the thrill of competition and the athleticism.