Lies den Artikel hier in Deutsch
“In my head I worked out all the obstacles I’d been through and put them in a figurative cookie jar. And in hard times, I reach in and pull out perspective and resilience,” said Olympic track cyclist Holly Edmondston. “And yeah, I have a lot of cookies.”
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to her cookie jar in many ways: lockdown, canceled races, and personal health problems. Being from New Zealand, Edmondston was confronted with two options: leaving her country to race overseas or staying in the “promised land of no covid”. Since March 2020, New Zealand’s borders have been closed, keeping covid out but the people in.
“I didn’t ride a race in the two years before the Olympic Games,” Edmondston said. Because most competitions were canceled or rescheduled, New Zealand’s riders received the same pay as the year before. “Financially it didn’t hinder us at all, because we weren’t going anywhere.”
For Franziska Reng, runner-turned-triathlete from Germany, the COVID-19 pandemic hit right during her transition between the two sports. After two years of battling sickness, she had to quit professional running and picked up triathlon–just to see one competition after another being canceled.
“I would say it was another small setback, but in retrospect it wasn’t only bad for me,” Reng said, who represented Germany as a junior cross country and track runner. Even after she quit running, the financial reserves she had built from sponsorship contracts and German sports aid carried her through 2020.
The pandemic also gave her time to set a new course in her career. In her job as a freelance journalist and author, she has enough freedom to balance triathlon training, racing, and working on passion projects such as her print magazine “Podium”.
“A lot has changed in my life over the last three years,” Reng said. “It’s not like I was doing bad before and now I’m doing better. My everyday life is just different now and I think different thoughts. It’s good to see that change is just part of life.”
When Reng was diagnosed with a complicated gastrointestinal disorder in 2018, her life changed drastically. She had recently become the German half marathon champion and was preparing for the European Championships when she started suffering stomach pains and nausea. One night she woke up with extreme pain and called her dad, a gastroenterologist, to run a few tests on her. The results showed severe bowel obstruction caused by intestinal malrotation.
“It would have been reckless to continue professional running with a diagnosis like that,” Reng said. She tried to keep going for a bit, but quickly reached her limits as she noticed that her body didn’t recover as it used to. “In 2019, I found myself in a sort of personal crisis that didn’t only involve physical problems, but also affected my mental health.”
While Reng had people around her who supported her throughout those times, Edmondston was left to her own devices when she injured her back in August 2017.
“I had to pull out of all these competitions and I got kind of phased from the team,” she said. The team culture was less supportive and more competitive. If one rider was injured, it meant that the selection spots for competitions were given to fewer riders, which increases the likelihood of going to the Commonwealth Games or other international events.
It took half a year before Edmondston rode properly again. “It was super hard getting back on the bike,” she said.
A year later, her cycling career went over another road bump. When she started getting stomach pains and nausea, riding and racing became increasingly difficult. A few months later, she got diagnosed with endometriosis.
“I think it was the end of 2019 when I had laparoscopy to get rid of the endometriosis,” she said. “And I was like, crap, it’s only six months until the Olympic Games, it’s going to be a bit of a stretch to get recovered in time.”
Then COVID-19 hit and gifted her with one more year to recover. But even after her endometriosis surgery, she was still battling a lot of bloating and nausea.
“The selections for the Olympics weren’t good on my mental health,” she said. The coaches announced to each rider individually that another cyclist was selected to add more depth to the team. Even though she had earned her spot on the Olympic team, Edmondston was told that she wouldn’t be capable of competing in both the omnium and team pursuit because of her nausea struggles and her spot would be given to the 6th rider.
“I had been building towards these games since I was just a dreaming ten-year-old,” she said. Edmondston came to the conclusion that her nausea and fatigue had a reason beyond endometriosis: an anxiety disorder that had developed from the years of accumulated stress caused by her lifestyle and profession. “The closer to the Games I was getting, I was like, I don’t care. There was no joy, no anger, just kind of emptiness.”
When Edmondston received her anxiety disorder diagnosis in March 2021, her psychologist also recommended taking medication to increase her serotonin levels. A few weeks later, she felt the emotions coming back and her stomach issues receding.
Reng took a different way to improve her mental health. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, she packed her things and drove to her parent’s house at the Lake of Garda in Italy, where she spent almost one month to focus on her training.
“I finally found some kind of peace and for the first time, I was able to switch off and distance myself from all the stress of the last year,” she said.
When some countries in Europe started closing their borders, Reng knew it was time to return home. Germany locked down over April and May, which meant a lot of staying home and social distancing.
“I wasn’t doing well because I was living on my own. I started doubting myself and what I was doing,” Reng said. Her work as a freelance writer had become “non-essential” in the pandemic. “I write about sports. But sports didn’t happen.”
There were no competitions to write about and no races to race. But when she met her new boyfriend in May, things started looking a bit brighter. “I suddenly had someone who gave me a lot of support. That’s when I decided to use the lockdown to collect miles and make progress in my triathlon journey.”
She realized that switching to triathlon was the right decision, even in the absence of competitions. After all, it’s important to like the day-to-day routine of training. “I don’t need races to validate my performance. I know that I’ll keep cycling, running, and swimming until I feel that I’m done.”
Reng’s source of motivation is her passion for the sport and doing what she loves. The struggles with her gastrointestinal disorder showed her that being happy with her own body is the most important thing.
Edmondston came to a similar conclusion after recovering from endometriosis and an anxiety disorder, while fighting for her spot on the Olympic team. She had to prove that she was physically strong and mentally capable to race in both the omnium and the team because her coaches didn’t believe she could do it. “And then on race day, it was perfectly clear that I was the right choice.”
Edmondston placed tenth in the Omnium while her team placed eighth out of eight in the pursuit, still breaking their national record. To return to New Zealand, all Olympic athletes had to quarantine in MIQ (Managed Isolation Quarantine) for two weeks. On the plane back home, Edmondston and her team learned that a childhood friend and teammate had committed suicide after the Olympics.
“I haven’t been back to the velodrome and the training headquarters, and I haven’t seen anyone in person since the Games. I don’t have much direction and I didn’t really feel like getting on my bike again,” she said. On top of going through the trauma of losing a teammate, New Zealand’s riders got a pay cut of $1,000 a month after the Olympics, which means they are being paid below their nation’s minimum wage.
“All the drama in the past was completely avoidable. So much heartache was created from selections,” she said and suggests a selection panel of individuals from outside the sport to foster a fairer environment. She also speaks up about paying athletes a livable wage that allows them to focus on their full time job–representing their country.
Edmondston used the time after the Olympics to grieve and reflect. She hasn’t touched her road bike for 10 weeks and is more focused on having fun on the mountain bike instead. But her passion for cycling is still burning. Traveling is what she loves most about the sport, which fuels her commitment for another Olympic cycle until 2024. “I love representing my country,” Edmondston said.
Reng’s intestinal malrotation diagnosis forced her to give up her professional running career, but she’s looking forward to representing Germany at the 70.3 World Championships next year. For her, triathlon is all about collecting experiences, especially experiences in international competitions.
“I’m far away from making money with triathlon,” Reng said. But that gives her the chance to go at her own pace. “I’m excited to race overseas again. I definitely question the race-and-travel culture of jetting around the globe. But on the other hand, competing with people from all around the world is part of sports.”
Edmondston is now looking at the possibility of joining a road cycling team alongside her track team in 2022. “I’m not fit right now, but I’ll keep riding. Like I said and will keep saying, I believe everything happens for a reason.”
Thanks to Franzi and Holly for the interview and making this article possible!