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  • Psychological impact of COVID-19 on Australia's elite athletes

    Author: AAP

Experts say the psychological impact of COVID-19 has been compounded for Australia's elite athletes.

As a deadly virus crept across the globe, Australia's elite athletes were charging towards their prime on the world stage.

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But years of training that was cranked up as the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo edged closer halted when the Games were postponed amid the COVID-19 crisis.

"Really what we have done is completely blindsided them," Griffith University's Associate Professor Clare Minahan told AAP.

In the weeks since, swimmers have been blocked from pools, training squads split and support crews cut off from physical contact.


Experts say taking away that camaraderie and competition is having an unknown effect on the mental health of Australia's top sportspeople.

At some point, they'll shift back into high-intensity training schedules as quickly as they were forced to pull out.

"How do we manage taking something away from them and then giving it back to them?" Prof Minahan added.

"It's such a massive part of their life."

In January, two-time Olympic gold medallist Cate Campbell was gearing up for what would be her fourth and potentially last Games.

She was also planning a life after two decades in the pool and was devastated when news came in that Tokyo had been pushed back 12 months.

"The first thing I did was allowed myself to have a bit of a meltdown," the former 100m world champion told AAP.

"I allowed myself to really feel the loss and the grief of not being able to follow through with my dreams, and hopes and aspirations.

"You usually associate that to a person, it's very emotive, but athletes, when we talk about our sport, if something goes wrong its heartbreaking."

Two weeks passed before she broke out of full-blown Olympic mode.

"It's important for me to recognise that this is going to be the break that I need to have and once we get back in the pool I'm going to be working at 100 per cent each day," she said.

It means taking a rest that will give her injuries a chance to heal and the added mental health toll from pushing through physical pain.

"I've discovered that swimming takes a lot of energy and sucks away creativity," Cate said.

She has found time to grow tomatoes in a Brisbane backyard, refurbish furniture collected from the roadside and seek out toys left in household windows from behind a camera.

"I've never really looked for other things to do for the sake of doing them just for enjoyment. The pandemic has helped me find other things that I can take into post-lockdown life," she added.

In Sydney, younger sister Bronte was relieved to hear the Olympics would still go ahead.

But while Cate at first pushed herself harder, Bronte pulled back.

The meditation and visualisation she practises daily initially took a back seat.

"If I'm honest, I pivoted a bit hard," Bronte, also an Olympic gold medallist and freestyler, said.

"Even if other structures are gone, it's very easy to let go of your normal mental health."

She's now trying to balance focusing her mind on Tokyo 2021 and feeling mentally refreshed enough to hit her game when pools reopen.

"The Olympics is such a big deal and when that's on offer it is a very motivating thing," Bronte said.

"The most unmotivating bit is that we can't really do much about it yet, and my biggest learning is that I've just got to be OK with that, I've got to be OK with not being in top gear yet.

"So I'm trying to take it easy while I can and appreciate all of the good things that I'm getting from having this forced break."

For elite athletes, their sport is everything.

"The sport really forms part of their identify, so when they're not able to play sport and train that really can be challenging," University of Melbourne's Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell said.

Managing the psychological jolt from a pandemic has had its own challenges.

"We really haven't had anything to guide us on this and so it's difficult to know what the impacts of quickly stopping sport and then resuming are going to have," Prof Purcell added.

"They are really all individuals so it's going to impact them in different ways.

"For Olympic sports, like sailing or equestrian, it's not just a matter of being able to go out for a run to maintain your fitness.

"They're sports that require very specific infrastructure and if you're not able to do that you're not able to keep up."

How quickly they bounce back will also vary.

The Campbell sisters admit they're ready to get back in the pool.

"I miss swimming, I miss the water," Cate said.


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