Olympics dream on hold: Triathlete Dr Carolyn Hayes on switching her focus from Tokyo to the virus crisis

Dr Carolyn Hayes tells Sharon Ní Chonchúir that her aims and goals remain unchanged despite the coronavirus.

Carolyn Hayes triathlete: “The date of the games may have changed but the goal remains the same for me. I want to compete in the Olympics.'
Carolyn Hayes triathlete: “The date of the games may have changed but the goal remains the same for me. I want to compete in the Olympics."

Coronavirus has changed everything. Virtually overnight, it altered the course of our daily lives, confining us to our homes and distancing us from family, friends and colleagues. It’s also reshaped the future, making it a far less certain place.

This is as true for housebound students and those of us struggling to work from home as it is for elite athletes who had hoped to compete in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Prior to the lockdown, triathlete Dr Carolyn Hayes was looking forward to a packed six-week schedule of racing in Mauritius, World Cup events in South Africa and Brazil and ongoing training for the Olympics.

“I was swimming four mornings a week and cycling and running three to four times a week,” she says.

“Everything was coming together, and I was starting to show some form. I had missed a few months of training over the winter, so it was like a small victory for me to be back to a normal training load. Losing that just after getting it back felt like a real blow.”

In more normal times, the Limerick native trains with the specialist HupHup triathlon training group in Wicklow. The current restrictions mean she cannot meet up with the group or spend as much time training as she would like.

“I felt a bit lost at the start of it all,” she says. “Everyone is in contact through the various social media channels and trying to keep the form up on the group WhatsApp but, I won’t lie, it’s been challenging and quite a change to the normal routine.”

She has tried to adapt that routine so that she can continue her training at home and within the permitted two-kilometre exercise zone.

“I’m lucky to have a turbo trainer, so I can still cycle with relatively little disruption,” she says. “I also have a fantastic two-kilometre out and back run route which takes me to the seashore. The gym and swimming are harder to replicate, so I’m trying to use my bands to do shoulder exercises.

“I live near the sea but given the water temperature is hovering at eight degrees, I won’t be getting into the water any time soon.”

Postponed

On March 24, Japan announced the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed until 2021. The Olympic Federation of Ireland welcomed the decision but recognised it would be difficult for athletes to maintain their training in order to be in peak condition next year.

Hayes greeted the decision with a combination of relief and acceptance. “I’m thankful it was postponed and not cancelled,” she says. “I’d have been devasted if it was cancelled. Postponing was something I expected, and I think every athlete knows that the current crisis is bigger than any sporting dream.”

It hasn’t yet been decided whether qualification points earned this year will be carried over to 2021 or if triathletes like Hayes will have to start the qualification process all over again.

“The International Triathlon Union and the Irish Olympic Council are in discussions to see how the qualification criteria can be adapted, given the change in the qualification period which was meant to close on May 10 this year,” she says.

Whatever happens, Hayes intends to maintain her focus. “The date of the games may have changed but the goal remains the same for me. I want to compete in the Olympics.”

Despite her efforts to adapt her training routine and determination to stay focused, the shift in gears has been dramatic. But she has found some solace in knowing it is a shared experience.

“It’s the exact same for everyone, whether you’re a parent, worker, athlete or artist,” she says. “We’ve all been dealt the same hand and we have all had to do the right thing.”

Looking at the bigger picture has helped too. “The world has a much greater task on its shoulders than I do,” she says. “This won’t last forever and following the public health advice is something we can all do to tackle the current pandemic. Stay home and stay apart. It’s not too hard when you think about it like that, but I know it’s tough on individuals to mentally cope with the change.”

Solitude

The imposed solitude and resulting cabin fever haven’t proven to be an issue for Hayes herself. “I’m happy in my own company. I put it down to all those years of solitary studying to be a doctor. These days, I can honestly say that I’m never bored, as I always have something to do, To read or to learn.”

Hayes knows that she’s fortunate in many ways. “I’m extremely lucky to be living in the countryside [near Greystones, Co Wicklow.] We have a garden, country roads to run on and a beach within walking distance. Cabin fever could definitely be an issue for those who don’t have space — a garden to get into or a spare room to go to for some downtime — or those who are juggling work with family all at home all the time.”

She s can also see the pressure that her medical colleagues are coming under as a result of Covid-19. Although she took a career break from medicine to focus on her training, she hasn’t stepped away entirely.

She works as a locum when time allows and is involved in research with the Department of Pain Research and Anaesthetics in UL.

This work brings her into close contact with those on the frontline in the fight against the virus. Like athletes, she believes they have done the training required for the challenge ahead.

“My medical colleagues are well prepared and don’t see themselves as heroes at all,” she says. “As doctors, you’re trained to care for your patient, whatever the disease.”

However, she worries about potential problems. “Doctors and nurses will do their jobs but the increased need for personal protective equipment (PPE) makes it challenging, as does the issue of intensive care unit capacity.”

Just as we all have, Hayes has learned some lessons from her experience of the pandemic to-date. The sudden emergence of the virus and the rapid changes it made to people’s lives has given her a new perspective on life.

“I think it’s reminded us all of our own fallibility and of how important it is to appreciate the things that we have and that we may have taken for granted until now,” she says.

“What we’re facing right now as a society is much bigger than any one person’s dream.”

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