Words by Ashleigh Nelson
In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, there was great speculation as to how it would affect the 2020 Olympic Games set in Tokyo. In the subsequent cancelation of the games, and postponement to 2021, we decided to catch up with one Olympian and talk about their experience.
We spoke with Ashleigh Nelson, a Team GB sprinter who has participated in two previous Olympic Games, to find out how she's been dealing with this change in plans. England Athletics star Ashleigh is also half of The Athlete Method, along with certified PT and 400m hurdler, Kerry Dixon. The Athlete Method is a fitness and wellness program designed to help people get fit and feel good.
So with the cancelation Tokyo Olympics 2020, how does a professional track and field athlete deal with the uncertainty of when the biggest race of her career will actually happen? Read on to find out.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF, WHAT EVENTS DO YOU COMPETE IN?
I’m a 100 and 200 meter sprinter and I also compete in the 400 meter relay. Which is where I’ve probably had most of my success. I’ve been part of Team GB for many years. I’ve been to two Olympics - the first one was in Beijing when I was just 17! Unfortunately I missed out on London due to injury, but then I competed in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
WHAT HAD TRAINING BEEN LIKE AHEAD OF THE TOKYO OLYMPICS?
We start our training for the Olympics usually around October time - so we’d actually been prepping since then for the Tokyo games. It’s a long hard slug, usually training five to six days a week: on the track, in the gym, I often do Pilates, and occasionally in the pool for recovery too. Everything had been business as usual. And that’s what we’d been doing up until the tracks closed last spring.
HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT THE 2020 OLYMPICS BEING CANCELLED?
I was home – I suppose like everyone else. We actually didn’t find out until well into lockdown. So up until then we were actually still training for them, just not at the facilities we normally would have access to. We went from training at this amazing track in Lee Valley to this random field in the middle of East London!
I just remember an immediate feeling of disappointment. We’d been working up to this moment – it’s not only a build up since October, these only happen every four years so this is something we’ve been thinking about, and putting in the time for good training for a long time. I’m in two minds about it being postponed – obviously it was very necessary for it to be cancelled for safety. On one hand, I sort of thought, ‘What’s another year, after waiting four years already’. But I was of course very disappointed, we’d invested a lot in it.
HOW HAS YOUR CAREER AS AN ATHLETE PREPARED YOU TO COPE WITH THIS?
Unfortunately in my career I have had a few serious injuries that have led to me having to stop my season. I was having a really good season in 2017, and I was competing at the Olympic Stadium in London, and I actually got hurt during the race. I had to finish my season early, and later on that year the World Championships were actually being held in that exact stadium in London. The relay team that I would normally be a part of went on to win a silver medal, which hurt to watch. I was so happy for them, don’t get me wrong. But it was devastating to have to watch and not be part of it. That’s why when we went to the World Championships this past October and won the silver again, it meant so much more to me.
In athletics I’m used to adversity and setbacks. Although no one wanted the Olympics to be cancelled this year, it’s not too dissimilar to other upsets I’ve had in sport. This time, everyone is experiencing it together, which makes me feel a bit better.
WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING DURING LOCKDOWN?
As a professional athlete, your one goal is to go to the Olympic Games, and when all of a sudden there is no Olympic Games, it can feel like a part of your purpose has disappeared. It can be easy to feel lost.
Sport has become a real part of my identity. Even when I go home to my hometown of Stoke-on-Trent where I’ve not lived in 10 years, people will still say to me. ‘Oh you're that runner’. So when tracks closed and we weren’t able to do our work while many people could work from home, it was really difficult.
But my coach has been great. He’s given us training to keep active, and helped keep routine. So other than being in a different setup, not much has changed training-wise. As regulations changed we were eventually able to meet up as a squad to train together.
In addition to that, Kerry and I have The Athlete Method. We were doing a lot of live classes online, it was a great experience to keep us all motivated and accountable.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE STRUGGLING TO STAY MOTIVATED?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Even Olympic athletes have moments where we feel a bit down and lost. Find something or someone that helps keep you accountable. Get your flatmates, or your friends out to the park and exercise together there. Or tell someone your goals for the week and they can help keep you accountable for them. But at the end of the day, this is a new experience for everyone. So it’s important to not be too self critical.
FINALLY, HOW ARE YOU APPROACHING TOKYO 2021?
With the same mindset I’ve had for Tokyo 2020. I was happy to still be training through last summer's season. I took my annual break, as we usually do, for 4-5 weeks. After that it was back into training at full steam, as though this postponement never happened!
Catch Ashleigh Nelson as part of Team GB's 4x100 Women's Relay Squad at the Tokyo Olympics 2021. You can watch the Tokyo Games via BBC 1 and 2 or the BBC Athletics website.