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A Few Minutes With: Paralympics Cancelled

Vince Lara of the College of Applied Health Sciences at Illinois speaks with Adam Bleakney, coach of Illinois' wheelchair track team, and Susannah Scaroni, paralympic athlete, about the just-cancelled Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois's College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'm speaking with Coach Adam Bleakney and Paralympic Athlete Susannah Scaroni about the cancellation of the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Coach Adam Bleakney and Susannah Scaroni are with me as we're talking about the unfortunate cancellation of the 2020 games in Tokyo due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Coach, I'll start with you first. What was your first reaction to hearing about the cancellation of the games?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, that was my expectation. And so I wasn't surprised, based on the way things have moved, and over the last few weeks and the last month. But all the indicators-- it was suggested that the games were going to be-- they weren't going to go. I didn't know if they would cancel them or postpone them. But I was very confident that they weren't going to happen this summer. But you never know, of course, you never know. So no, I wasn't surprised. And I think in enough conversation with athletes, I think that I'd passed along that sentiment, that likely the games weren't going to happen as scheduled.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I should clarify, they were postponed not canceled. And Susannah, what did you think? Obviously as the coach said, this had been coming for quite some time, it seemed like.

SUSANNAH SCARONI: Yeah, I think you could definitely feel that was the way it was progressing. I think the question everybody had was, what will the situation be like in August? But by this point, training and also qualifying events had been so disrupted that it was pretty obvious, and it made sense.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I was going to ask if you both thought that was the right decision, but clearly you do. Would you have preferred it would have been later this year, if possible? Or does it make more sense for 2021?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: Maybe Adam has a better answer. I don't know.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, my preference would be that they push it back to next summer. And align with the traditional track and field season, which is you have major competitions, and in late summer, early fall. We've been struggling with that as it is with some of our world championships being scheduled in non-traditional times. And just from a seasonal competition standpoint, that makes it a little bit more challenging to prepare.

And who knows when it's going to be, I guess? I would assume that they would tend to align with comparable dates next summer, but whether they do or not remains to be seen. But I guess if the question is would you rather push it back to December? From a coaching standpoint, it makes it a whole lot easier to maintain the traditional preparation cycle, and do what traditionally is a major games peaking time of year, which is late summer, early fall.

VINCE LARA: Coach, had you already been telling the athletes to back off from training because this looked likely? Or were they even able to train because of the virus outbreak?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: No, so we didn't back off the training. My position is that what it's given us is another opportunity to train some things that we would be moving out of. Clearly we have a winter training cycle. We focus on some very specific goals and objectives, both from a games fitness standpoint.

Generally at this point in time we're moving into a competition phase. So the biggest change, or the biggest difference is that our training volume moves and shifts, and focus shifts into something that allows the athlete to be ready and fresh for competition. Because there aren't any competitions, then we can just spend a little bit more time digging in on some opportunities, whatever those are. We're trying to build strength, and we're trying to strengthen skills and qualities that aren't as strong.

And I've tried to emphasize that to the athletes. It's not a moment to step back and take this as downtime. Rather this is an opportunity to come out stronger on the back end of this. Really situates itself as a unique opportunity. And it is different, but it's somewhat similar to an off year of a major competition.

So traditionally in the Quad you have Paralympics World Champs, you have an off year of no major competitions, then you have World Champs Paralympics. And how I'm couching it is it's an off-major competition year. That isn't necessarily wholly accurate, because generally we'd have all our spring marathon, which are high-value, high-profile competitions.

And then certainly there's road races and other track meets that would occur in the spring and the summer that aren't occurring now. Those major marathons at this point got pushed back into the fall. So that will be a very, very busy fall for the athletes with Boston, along with Chicago, New York City, Berlin, if anybody is going to do that. But that's a lot to bite off, I think.

But the point being, the competition year is still-- in fact, and we even currently have competitions in place for July that have not yet been canceled. So the plan is you have to prep and be ready for those competitions. So the emphasis is that.

And we're on very much a macro level when we look at how I divide the training year up. There's no change in what we're doing, rather than we may extend some phases. And I see that as a great opportunity for the athletes.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, that's interesting. I was going to ask, Susannah, what happens now for an athlete? But it sounds like you stay in the same mode. Nutrition and training don't change at all?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: No. I think, like Adam said, this is an opportunity we don't often get. Because like he said, even if we don't have a World Championship Paralympics in the summer, we often have major marathons in the spring. And so right now we can work on skills that we usually have to just really condense into the winter part. And so as an athlete, I feel I can feel that.

And I feel like from a nutrition standpoint, that is giving me more of an opportunity for maybe some-- I mean, it's pretty much the same nutrition. Not to lie, but it's maybe less endurance-based nutrition, and some more power. Maybe a little more muscle-building nutrition support for this kind of training.

So yeah, as an athlete, I am enjoying this opportunity. Because in my eight years of being here, this is the first time we've really been able to extend that kind of phase, which is cool. It's one of my weaknesses, I think.

So I think I'm going to just try to make the most of this opportunity, and then just nutritionally, for the most part, stay the same. Because it's our training. Like Adam said, we're not backing off, but we're really just extending one of our very important phases. Yeah.

VINCE LARA: Coach, for you, is it difficult to keep the athletes motivated? I hear from Susannah, she's definitely motivated still. But does that become a difficult thing to deal with?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Not with this group that I work with. For the most part, everybody is very intrinsically motivated. And I think the worry for me with some of them is that because I don't have as close a connection with them, because we're not meeting, and there's no scheduled training times, no scheduled practice times.

I think they would be pretty good about following my prescription, in terms of what I'm limiting to them to do rather than them doing extra work. I think they're more likely to do extra training because they're training out of their apartments, their houses. But I would certainly say that that's maybe a little less tuned in because of this change. But not to a great extent.

As I said, I think that's one of-- certainly meet my philosophy, and I think that's one of the cornerstones of my program is that it's athlete driven. And that I'm not a cheerleader and I don't pull the athletes along with their training. I push them in the right direction and then it really then becomes a product of their intention and effort.

And so I think that what that-- I guess to go into that a little bit more, and that's one of my goals with athletes is to create this entrepreneurial drive and an intention and desire so that the athlete takes ownership over their training and their development. And I think this is the perfect situation where if you've ingrained that, and you've developed that skill set, this is a situation where that value presents itself.

And they can very much leverage those skills that they develop, rather than an athlete, who we don't-- it really just feels as if they have to go to training every day. And they're getting yelled at and pushed in order to do something. And that becomes a product of them being forced to do something. But in the opposite, I think athletes who are in that type of system would probably be most inclined to train when they don't have a taskmaster with a whip telling them what to do.

Hopefully that's not the case with these athletes, because they're doing this for themselves. And they understand the value that comes from the day-to-day process of setting a goal and aspiring to that, and just the development of things each day. I think that was a little long-winded answer.

But I think from a standpoint of keeping an appropriate frame of reference when any major games are canceled, the emphasis is on, and the value of why you participate in sport is the day-to-day participation and intention of becoming just a little bit better and moving just a bit closer toward being a little more excellent each day. And to me, that's the value of sport and the takeaway. And hopefully that's what I emphasized, so that even at a time like this, they really do understand and see the value of wheelchair racing and wheelchair track for those specific group of athletes.

VINCE LARA: Susannah, this may not apply to you, but does the moving back of the Paralympics affect whether you'll compete in 2021? Because you're in a PhD program at U of I, correct?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: I am currently in a master's program.

VINCE LARA: Oh, master's program. Sorry.

SUSANNAH SCARONI: I mean, it's a long one. However, I'm going to be confident and say no. It's going to be a little restructured if I requalify for the team. But it's not a big concern.

And in fact, this actually might enable me to get through some of the data collection for my thesis a little bit sooner anyway-- I mean, additionally. So it might present an opportunity for me to have my study completed before the games, unlike what I was planning to do now was try to schedule that data collection in and around the games. So there might be some restructuring, but it's not a major concern.

VINCE LARA: And coach, for you, do you have any athletes that might not compete now because of life circumstances, whatever? And if that is the case, what do you tell them? Because there's got to be obvious disappointment there, I would imagine.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, I do. And so I don't know where they'll fall. I think likely or not, they'll just extend their career another year in order to compete, being that the end goal was to compete in the Tokyo games. So it's a nice bookend to their career. So it'd just be 2021, instead of 2020.

VINCE LARA: That's a really good way to look at it. Susannah, you mentioned, do you have to requalify for 2021? You wouldn't be automatically given that status because you had it for 2020?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: I don't actually know the answer to that. I'm not sure if Adam does, of if it's known yet at all.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: It's not. They haven't worked through that, just because of-- up until yesterday they were still moving ahead with track trials. But it really is a good question. Susannah asked that this morning, and I said you're right. But there were four athletes, right, four athletes that had qualified?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: I think three technically, only because of some odd things though in the first place.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, OK. So three athletes had qualified for the team via a marathon allocation. So that was Daniel (Romanchuk), Tatyana (McFadden), and Susannah. And so my assumption is that they'll have to rerun the trials in wherever that may be. Maybe Chicago, I don't know.

I would think that they would have to requalify for the team, which isn't an issue for any three of those athletes. But I can't imagine that they would name someone to the team with almost 24 months in between. Is that right? My math isn't good, but a good amount of time between when the qualification occurred and when the competition takes place. That's a pretty good disconnection between those two events.

But I don't know. I'm sure there's a legal framework that needs to be worked through. And so this is all new and novel, so we'll have to wait and see what they decide.

VINCE LARA: Coach, I know you said that the training doesn't really stop, but is there a point where the athletes ramp up again?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, competition specific to the games would be next spring. So you would just take this cycle and then transplant it to next spring and summer in terms of the prep. And depending, too, on generally the schedule. Our circuit is pretty similar every year. There's very little variation in terms of the dates of when different meets occur, maybe a week or two forward or backward.

So a lot of that, the general construct, would be the same. It would be different because it's 2021 and not 2020. So every athlete has another 12 months of training under their belt, and another year of experience. So that changes, and if you get into the weeds, that does change some of how each athlete prepares.

But as I said, if things continue on as scheduled for the fall, there will be a certain segment of the athletes that'll have a peaking opportunity in competition, high-value competition cycle in the fall. It will be very busy fall and that's generally the athletes will do three. If three marathons in the fall, they would do potentially Berlin, Chicago, New York. And generally we're just doing Chicago, New York, Boston. So to double that-- they'll have plenty of competition to key in on and move through.

And then I think we'll set up a nice, little transition phase through our winter off-season training plan. And then we come into next winter with extended winter of 2020. So then that creates a nice, solid foundational peace from which we can work towards our Paralympic-specific preparation.

VINCE LARA: In closing, I just want to ask a last question.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. In closing, I just want to ask, do you think that Tokyo or the IOC could have done anything different in how this went down?

SUSANNAH SCARONI: So I guess I can start. I don't think so in my opinion. I think they waited as long as possible, but they didn't go the extra four weeks that they were giving themselves. It was obvious and they made the decision as early as they could.

And so there's really no way to have prevented this, I feel like. I think the world is realizing that it has to clamp down on it. But other than that, I don't think the IOC had much that they could have done differently.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah, I don't have many issues with the IOC. Well, my real point of frustration with this was with the International Paralympic Committee, and that when this was announced-- and I read it about 7:30, just minutes, I think, after it had been posted on its website. And all the verbiage only referenced the Olympics at that point. There was about an hour window where there was question as far as, well, is it just the Olympics, or the Paralympics, too? Is it the fact that the media typically ignore the Paralympics, and that was their reference point?

And so I had emailed a few different people in the US Paralympics. And then finally, the IPC offered an official statement, and that was-- I mean, I don't know what it was. So anyway, that was my only complaint. I was pretty fired up in that 45 minutes to an hour. I was like, why have they not made an official statement?

Because I wanted to connect with all the athletes as soon as I could. And 45 minutes isn't that long of time, but it just seemed to me that there should've been some anticipation or expectation that that was going to happen, and to immediately follow up with that. When the IOC makes a statement, then my standpoint, the IPC should immediately piggyback on that and make an official statement to clarify any confusion on whether it's just the Olympics, or whether it's the Olympics and the Paralympics. So there you have it.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Coach Bleakney and Susannah Scaroni. For more podcasts on Illinois's College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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