In Our Own Words

"All we know is that the Olympics will be irrevocably altered."

By: Lily Williams  March 26, 2020

In February, Lily Williams was on top of the world, winning the Women's Team Pursuit World Championships with her teammates. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the delay of the Olympic Games, Williams talks about what keeps her positive in these tough times. 

We are living in extraordinary times, to borrow this month’s catchiest phrase. I think we can all say that life right now is challenging in an unprecedented way and everyone everywhere feels a bit out of control. I don’t think I need to run over the finer details of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on daily life here. But as a cyclist and athlete, my life has changed in substantial ways that are both unique and parallel to the general workforce and U.S. population.

I compete for a living. Well, to me it’s more than just a living. My existence is pretty tied in to sports. There are no competitions right now. The solitary goal of life has been preparing for the Olympics. And now the Olympics are postponed.

I’ve gone through four drafts of this article, having to re-write each time there is a radical change in future plans, which seems to happen every 25 minutes. I dread each email, news alert, and text, wondering what it will mean for my current living and work situation. With Tuesday’s Olympics postponement, at least we finally know something.

I think first and foremost on every potential Olympian’s mind is the health of the communities, spectators, and athletes that the Olympics will affect. Nobody wants to jeopardize anyone else. While we have all been working towards a 2020 Olympics for a long time, I have friends who have been in medical school for four years and now their rotations and residencies are put on hold indefinitely. People are out of work. People are getting sick. No one around the world can claim to be moving forward as normal. Given opportunity for a safe Olympics, all athletes want it to go on. But not in four months.

I am not yet qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. I started my Olympic preparations in December of 2018 after transitioning from running to cycling in 2016 and starting a professional career on the road in 2018. Over the course of 2019 I heavily invested my time in attending track camps, perfecting a training structure with a team of gifted and hard-working staff and teammates, and learning how to ride a team pursuit. Our last race was in Berlin just a few incredible weeks ago where we won the World Championships. This adventure was to all culminate at the end of May with the selection of the Olympic team. Now we are not quite sure what is next. I think we all envisioned something other than isolation and uncertainty.

In some ways, the officiality of the postponement is a relief. For the past few weeks, thousands of athletes across the globe were doing what we could with unacceptably reduced training capabilities. We had to roll with it because we didn’t know. We assumed the Olympics would happen with a bunch of athletes at 50 percent. Now, we have time to reset.

In other ways, this postponement will disrupt athletes’ life plans. Many athletes do not make enough money to sustain this lifestyle. We’ve carefully meted budgets, postponed school and life events, and made commitments based on the original Olympic timeline. For those whose plans can’t move, what happens next? All we know is that the Olympics will be irrevocably altered. By next summer, some athletes’ peaks will have passed, and they won’t earn what they have specifically timed their training to do.

We also still don’t know how the Olympics will play out given the incredible logistical challenges of reorganizing selection events and moving a massive international competition. Add to that the unknown impact of COVID-19, which is changing so rapidly that we cannot know what will happen in four weeks or four months, let alone next year. It all depends on our fluctuating ability to lock things down and follow recommendations and guidelines. We may have an idea of the future, but anyone who claims to know the exact timeline is being irresponsible. Life has changed so drastically in the past week that it is unrealistic to extrapolate to what life will look like given another 52.

We see uncertainty reflected in all walks of life at the moment. But as we parse through the overload of COVID-19 information online, I’ve found that what I want to see and feel, more than anything, are the human stories of life during COVID-19.

The thing that has lifted me the most has been those who have been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy – using FaceTime to talk to friends as if we were at dinner together or help my sister set up a trainer in her apartment. People who do not want to talk about coronavirus. Who are maintaining calm – at least outwardly – and who are adjusting and continuing to take joy from life. It’s a privilege to be able to chat about what’s for dinner when life is permanently altered for many people. But it’s up to those with the luxury of stability to continue working, training, producing, and maintaining positivity to help the rest of the world return to normal as soon as this abates. Negativity about not being able to train perfectly or about the inconveniences of life right now is unwarranted. The additional negative mix of online virtue signaling and social media shaming is also unwelcome in my world at the moment, as it adds no new information to the inundation we’re receiving from reputable experts and organizations. Adding that element of social isolation to our literal inability to see and touch those we care about is not effective, in my opinion. Being grateful for what we do have and what we still can control is the game-changer that will set us up for really tackling COVID-19.

As an athlete, it can be hard to be grateful when you may only see one real shot at an Olympic cycle over the course of a lifetime. It is a gift to be able to partake in a life of sport, but it comes with inherent lifestyles and personalities of structure. To not be able to plan every little piece of the lead in to the pinnacle of sporting competition, due to something entirely out of our control, is sickening in a way that I cannot really capture in words. Add to that the huge number of up-and-coming athletes who have not hit their break with a professional team or support, and who are losing opportunities to compete this year. This kind of disruption will end careers, as it has in any other industry.

But because things are uncertain now does not render everything we have done up until this point irrelevant. Humanity is going to change drastically in the wake of coronavirus. We don’t yet know how, but it will. All we can do is our part, and we can’t just stop what we are doing because we are unsure. This is all to draw a parallel to the many different ways of making it in the world. In the face of uncertainty, we can’t just roll over. Things will return to normal. A new normal, but a normal nonetheless. So I will continue to train with my goal in mind. Training will continue to evolve over the coming weeks and months, but so will that of every athlete around the world, and every other person who is just trying to figure life out with or without a pandemic. Perhaps I am prepared for all of this as a millennial who doesn’t really know what the future holds at any given moment. But as my college strength coach and mentor would say, “improvise, adapt, overcome.”

More than sports, the Olympics is about the triumph of peace and unity among a global community. It’s about demonstrating what humans do best: perseverance in the face of adversity. Giving up on that dream in times of uncertainty, just as giving up on whatever your goals and obligations are right now, would be a huge loss. I think we are seeing a global community forming in the wake of COVID-19. Countries are putting aside their conflicts in order to fight the spread of the pandemic. People are finding new ways to show love and care. When the Olympics do happen, I think they will be one of the most incredible spectacles of human cooperation ever. As an athlete, I am going to do everything in my power to demonstrate what positivity and hope can do for humanity. I think even before all of this, we really needed a bit more of that.

About the Contributor

Lily Williams has a B.A. in evolutionary biology from Vanderbilt University and a M.S. in science journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She has written for publications such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Nashville Public Radio and has had stories and clips picked up by organizations such as the Big Ten Network and NPR. She currently rides on the road for Rally Cycling and was part of USA Cycling’s 2020 World Championship-winning team pursuit team. She is the Communications Director for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Bike Index.