For Berkeley’s Olympic Hopefuls, The Games Are a Dream Deferred

By Emma Silvers

WHEN CAMRYN ROGERS WAS A HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR, she downloaded an app that counted the days until the 2020 Olympics. It was 2017, and the Vancouver native was already a record-breaking competitor in the hammer throw. She was heading home from a track and field camp in Arizona, talking excitedly with a teammate about the future.

“I knew I was coming to Cal, and I was so pumped, and we were talking about how the next summer Olympics were in Tokyo,” says Rogers, now a junior and the reigning NCAA hammer throw champion. “I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve been counting down to opening ceremonies since, like, day 1,234.” Rogers has been working toward a spot on Team Canada ever since.

But with the 2020 summer games now postponed until July, 2021. Rogers is no longer gearing up for the April Olympic trials. She’s home in Vancouver with her mother—going for walks, cooking, watching Netflix, and lifting weights in her backyard, thanks to some loaner iron from a local gym. With the U.S.-Canada border closed indefinitely, says Rogers, “I have no idea when I’m coming back to Cal.”

As coronavirus wreaks havoc around the world, Rogers is one of at least a dozen “Calympians” whose plans for 2020 changed abruptly following the March 24 announcement that the Olympics has been postponed due to the pandemic. For elite athletes, thousands of practices, travel plans, trials, and meets disappeared from calendars in a matter of minutes.

The Olympics have been canceled three times before, during wartime (once during World War I, and twice during World War II). But a postponement is unprecedented.

“I know I’m fortunate that I can continue to go after this,” says Murphy. “Some people, in some sports, this would be a kind of forced
retirement.”

“On a human level, [postponement] was obviously the only decision. The most important thing is to keep people safe, and to support the medical community,” says swimmer and Cal grad Ryan Murphy, a three-time gold medalist and the world record-holder in the men’s 100-meter backstroke. “But as a competitor, there are conflicting feelings, of course. We started a job, and we want to finish that job when we’re supposed to.”

Murphy flew to his family home outside Jacksonville, Florida as soon as he got news of the cancellation and has spent his days since taking walks and “eating pretty bad,” he says with a laugh. “I’m on a cookie diet for now.”

His other main activity has been “hundreds of conversations” with his teammates and coaches, including Cal men’s swimming and diving Head Coach Dave Durden, who was also set to serve as Team USA’s head coach in Tokyo. Murphy says Durden has encouraged him to take a one- or two-week break from training, and then the pair will devise a regimen he can do on his own.

“I think everyone’s just working through the gamut of emotions,” says Murphy of his fellow swimmers. “I’ve been on the phone constantly, trying to lend an ear to people who are just coming to terms with it. You have to lean on your inner circle for support.”

Murphy also acknowledges that, in the long run, one year won’t make much of a difference for him. “I know I’m fortunate that I’m at an age and in a position where I can continue to go after this,” he says. “Some people, in some sports, this would be a kind of forced retirement.”

For former Cal water polo player Luca Cupido—a dual citizen who was born outside Genoa, Italy, and attended high school in Southern California—the Olympics had been pushed out of his mind even before the official postponement. The Tokyo games were to be his second Olympics: Cupido competed in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when Team USA came in 10th place, and 2020 was supposed to be the big chance for the team to redeem itself. But with family in virus-crippled Italy, Cupido couldn’t focus on training.

“Once the situation started to get bad in Italy, when I heard how intense it was, the games were not my priority,” says Cupido, who noted that, thankfully, his family back home are all currently safe and healthy. “I was practicing, but my mind was somewhere else.”

Cupido is currently in Denver with his girlfriend, trying to stay in shape by going on runs at altitude. His plans to go to Italy for Easter have obviously been canceled. He’s watching lots of movies, he says, posting in group chats with his Team USA teammates, and studying to go into investment banking—something he had planned to explore more fully in August, after the games were done. “Everything is shifting,” he said.

“Once the situation started to get bad in Italy, when I heard how intense it was, the games were not my priority,” says Cupido. “My mind was somewhere
else.”

For first-time Olympians, the postponement means 12 more months of a dream deferred. Cal grad Valerie Arioto has been a standout in Team USA Softball for a decade, but because the sport hasn’t been in the Olympics since 2008, the Tokyo games were to be her first. Nevertheless, the pitcher was upbeat.

“There’s been so much loss and devastation, to have them reschedule is actually kind of a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Arioto, who grew up in Pleasanton and is currently hunkered down with her fiancé at their home in Walnut Creek. “I’m thinking of it as a chance to give back to the world next year, and hopefully be a source of some light and inspiration. I think we’ll come back stronger.”

Her team has been staying connected online, and they have plans to start new traditions, like “Tuesday TED Talks,” where different players share something they’re passionate about via Zoom calls. “It’s been really inspiring to see everyone using social media to lift each other up,” she says.

They’re staying focused on 2021 as well: “The great thing about the Olympics is that no matter who you are, you want to support your country,” she says. “So stay with us, and hopefully we can put on a good show for you next year.”

“There’s been so much loss and devastation, to have them reschedule is actually kind of a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Arioto.

Johnny Hooper, a standout from the Cal men’s water polo who was set to make his Olympics debut on Team USA this summer, took a similar approach. “The Olympics are a dream from when you’re a little kid,” says Hooper. “So when I first found out, it was tough… on the other hand, no one’s ever had five years to prepare for the Olympics before. You’ve got to look at the situation in the most positive light you can.”

Hooper, who graduated from Cal last year, lives with friends in Brentwood. He says he’s keeping a daily schedule, with time for reading, podcasts, and practicing the guitar. He’s also studying for the GMAT and Series 7 tests, and tracking workouts on the BridgeAthletic app, created by former Cal water polo star Michael Sharf. “I’m trying to stay productive.”

While Olympic athletes tend to be lauded for their physical prowess, several athletes indicated that mentally, they also feel pretty well-equipped for dealing with uncertainty. Nothing is a given in sports. And they know a thing or two about playing the long game.

“I don’t want the seriousness of the situation to get lost in my positivity…but the biggest thing you can control is your own approach and your attitude,” says Murphy. “That’s very applicable in this situation. Every day that we wake up is an opportunity.”

For Rogers, who’s at home in British Columbia, that means appreciating time with family, staying active, and being grateful for her support system, both at home and (virtually) at Cal: “I talk to Coach Mo every single day, and he has so much faith in me,” she says. “I miss everyone, but I’m so lucky to have the people I have by my side.”

And yes, says Rogers, she had to reset her Olympics countdown app. “But after 1,230-something days,” she says, “what’s 477 more?”

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