Paralympians Allysa Seely and Oz Sanchez share how they overcame unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue training for the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
Like many of us, elite paratriathlete Allysa Seely describes the experience of living through a pandemic as being on “a roller coaster.”
“One day I’m like, ‘I got this, I’m calm, I’m cool, I’m collected,’ and then, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’” Seely told Healthline when reflecting back on the events of the past year.
Just as with everyone else, Seely’s day-to-day life was turned upside down by the disorienting changes brought about by COVID-19, from mask wearing and physical distancing to the isolation of sheltering in place. Beyond that, she had to contend with challenges unique to a select few.
Seely was set to compete in the Summer Paralympics last year when the pandemic put those plans on hold, pushing the international sporting event — along with the Olympics, also in Tokyo — a full year later.
She called the pandemic something of a test in “learning how to practice controlling what I can and not stressing about everything else, really focusing on my health, both mental and physical.”
It’s sage advice, especially for those in the United States who are starting to contend with a post-pandemic reality as vaccinations increase.
Athletes who compete on major international stages like the Paralympics spend their lives getting ready to perform under that kind of spotlight.
The dedication, diligence, and adherence to particular routines and training regimens required to reach that level of athletic competition can certainly be put to the test due to the unpredictable curveballs thrown by a pandemic.
Seely, who along with six other Paralympians and Olympians is partnering with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) sponsor Eli Lilly as a “Team Lilly” spokesperson, said there really is no “guidebook” for approaching the changes to one’s training regimen caused by COVID-19.
A gold medalist at the Rio Games in 2016 (a historic first as the triathlon sport made its Paralympics debut that year), Seely said she was constantly “checking in” with her mind and body as she responded to the stresses of the pandemic.
At one point when everything felt overwhelming, she said she emailed her coach and asked for 4 weeks off from “strict training.”
Seely recounted that she promised she would still work out and continue to train for the sport she loves, but needed to take time to go easy on herself and “find joy” during a period when she couldn’t see friends and family or travel to competitions.
“I said ‘OK, I need to go back to my roots, I need to go back to what I love,’ and that was getting out in the mountains and exploring, getting out in the dirt roads and trails, and getting on my bike with no plan and seeing where I end up,” Seely explained.
The change in routine and away from the Paralympics grind did her well.
After 4 weeks, Seely came back to regular training, and said her coach was impressed at how much that time away helped.
“It was fantastic and it was what I needed in the moment, and I’m glad I was able to listen to myself and my body and how best to approach a wholesome and healthy life,” Seely added.
Paracyclist Oz Sanchez, a six-time medalist for Team USA in the Paralympics, had a completely different experience. Sanchez is a veteran who served in the Marines. He’s no stranger to the rigors of self-discipline and performing against incredible odds.
Sanchez told Healthline that he was already in the “social distancing” and “personal quarantining” mindset even before COVID-19, because he was doing his best to prepare for the gauntlet of the Tokyo Games.
“It’s been unprecedented times, new norms and COVID-19 and the fallout of the postponement of the games, all that have undoubtedly thrown a wrench into people’s systems,” said Sanchez, who is also a Team Lilly spokesperson. “One thing I had in my corner was my experience of 6 years with the Marine Corps in preparation for two deployments.”
Sanchez said his special operations training, and traveling overseas for long stretches of time away from family and friends, prepared him to “unplug from society.” That background perhaps made him better suited than anyone for the events of the past year.
“Once the pandemic started, because of that background, it was a relatively easy transition,” he added.
Sanchez stressed that he did not want to minimize just how disruptive and damaging COVID-19 has been to people throughout the United States and around the world.
He doesn’t take for granted his unique background that makes him well primed for crisis as well as the solitary nature of his sport.
Sanchez is a road cyclist. He trains for long stretches alone out on the road. In some ways, the pandemic made this easier.
“Suddenly you have 80 percent less traffic on the roads, so that was a benefit, just from the cyclist’s perspective,” he added.
That being said, there was one life change that offered more of an abrupt shift to his training regimen than the pandemic: fatherhood.
Sanchez and his wife found out they were expecting a baby boy, whose birth would have fallen right at the originally scheduled Paralympic opening ceremony.
“The games sort of flipped those schedules around, so I was here for my son’s birth and, obviously, if all goes according to plan with the Tokyo ceremonies, it will all be a blessing in disguise for me,” he said.
If you’re an athlete performing at a high level like Seely and Sanchez, the pandemic certainly provided some major road blocks.
Dr. Chad Asplund, a primary care sports medicine physician at Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, told Healthline that COVID-19 offered “significant challenges for athletes.”
“The nature of the pandemic has been up and down with peaks in the virus. This has caused changes and rescheduling of competitions, changed practice schedules, and contributed to much uncertainty over the past year. This has increased the amount of mental stress that athletes have had,” said Asplund, who is not involved with the Eli Lilly campaign.
“Further, some of the athletes actually contracted COVID-19, and some of those had symptoms that lingered that may have limited the ability to return to practice or training,” he said.
Asplund added that physical distancing instituted unique limitations to “normal socialization” that he said caused increased stress overall for people, particularly athletes who are already juggling the demands of their sports.
“So, the pandemic has been very disruptive and mentally challenging for athletes,” he said.
Seely said that the extra year added to her training as a result of the pandemic, coupled with some personal health challenges, “definitely changed the trajectory” she was on.
She explained this shift required her to “change her mindset” about how she went about preparing for the games and roll with the wave of an ever-changing schedule.
Asplund said postponing an event like the Paralympics can be incredibly hard on an athlete. While international competitions like the Olympic and Paralympic Games bring prestige, getting to them can be taxing physically, financially, and psychologically.
If you’re on track for a major event only to have it suddenly pushed back an entire year, it can throw everything off.
“This can be very difficult as many athletes forego financial and occupational gains in pursuit of sport, and to extend that another year can be very challenging. Also, many of the competitions that would have been used by athletes to gauge their fitness or readiness for international competition were also canceled. The ability to train and compete during a pandemic lockdown led to further challenges,” Asplund said.
“Mentally, people prepare for a specific date in mind and gear several years of training to peak at this time, so it is hard to ‘reboot’ and try to reschedule long blocks of training to reach another peak,” he added.
Sanchez said the biggest challenge for him during this year of uncertainty was from being 100 percent in control over his schedule and commitments to now needing to co-parent and support a newborn while still training as an elite athlete.
Sanchez and his wife previously planned on moving to a new home after the originally scheduled dates of the games, something that became more of an immediate priority once the competition was pushed.
“I would say my personal life matters have been a bigger component of complexity with regards to preparation than the quarantine and actually has not been ideal, but this would possibly be my fourth games, probably 10th world championship. I’ve had two deployments in the military — I’m used to knowing how to buckle down and focus and put all distractions aside,” he said.
Like many Paralympians, Seely and Sanchez know a lot about resilience.
Seely received a diagnosis of Chiari II malformation, basilar invagination, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in 2010 — conditions that, combined, affect her brain, spine, and connective tissues.
Already a triathlete before these diagnoses, Seely was competing in the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships just 7 weeks after her first surgery. She started competing in postcollegiate, elite paratriathlons in 2012.
Seely had her left leg amputated and also lives with 20 to 25 days of migraine episodes each month.
Sanchez’s journey saw him suffer a motorcycle accident that led to a spinal cord injury. He had neurological complications and paralysis from the accident.
The former Marine made sure he would adapt and grow from this experience and not be defined in any way by the injury. He became an elite handcycle racer and won two gold medals in the Paralympics: one in 2008 and the other in 2012.
Seely and Sanchez said they use their experiences, both in their personal lives and as internationally lauded athletes, to inspire and educate others — particularly about resilience and overcoming obstacles.
“My life and my journey has been very complicated with health challenges and medical problems, one of which is migraines with symptoms that have had a major impact on my life and my sport,” Seely said.
A big factor in being part of this current public campaign ahead of the Tokyo Games has been to “promote whole body health: mind and body health,” Seely added.
She said oftentimes people who live with chronic conditions can find their concerns in equal parts stigmatized and dismissed by medical professionals, with concerns over the connection between physical and mental health brushed aside.
“No matter if it’s physiological or psychological, they are tied together. Our stress impacts our physiological well-being,” she said.
How does Seely manage what could be an overwhelming combination of mental and physical stressors?
Seely said she encourages simple actions like taking a walk with a family member, finding time to simply breathe for 10 minutes each night, or writing in a journal.
She said all these simple actions can help alleviate the anxieties of chronic pain and psychological stress.
Beyond his own past health challenges, Sanchez has witnessed his mother manage and persevere with a chronic condition: type 2 diabetes.
She now lives with Sanchez and his family, and he said observing his mother’s resiliency with her health challenges has been immensely inspiring, especially as he prepares for these upcoming games.
What can the average person, who might not be heading to an international competition anytime soon, learn from athletes like Seely and Sanchez?
Asplund said COVID-19 and the events of the past year have been particularly challenging for athletes — both those who are hobbyists and at the elite level.
If you’ve taken time off from training during the pandemic, Asplund suggests starting back at about 50 percent and then gradually building to the intensity you were working out at before taking time off.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a serious athlete, Asplund said he would encourage everyone to try to hit about 30 minutes of “moderate physical activity” for 5 or more days per week.
“If they are currently not exercising, they could start at 10 minutes three times per week and then gradually build up,” Asplund suggested. “For those over age 35, they should try to have 2 days of resistance training, which could be body weight, resistance bands, weight machines, or free weights, just to help prevent age-related muscle loss.”
“Overall, the pandemic has been very disruptive to all of society, but especially to high-level athletes. I hope with vaccination rates on the rise, that we can return to a ‘new normal’ soon,” he added.
For his part, Sanchez said he’s a big proponent of “self-education.”
Whether you’re like him and looking ahead to a major competition or navigating the uncertainties of a post-pandemic future, don’t only listen to what your body is telling you about your health, but try to be proactive and research what might be most helpful to feel your best.
Seely is excited about the prospect of the Tokyo Games.
“I think Tokyo is going to be a whole new world than any other games that have taken place. I don’t think anyone knows what to expect yet,” she said.
“I’m just really excited to have the opportunity to go out there and race safely with health in the forefront of everybody’s minds in these games,” Seely said.