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Olympic shot putters forced to create 'new atmosphere' during pandemic

20210416090444-0f8869b00c6cfc1626d2efdb53dd1fb51b114557b23f2dcb110cf658b79c9e90

TORONTO — The cavernous Toronto Track and Field Centre was all but empty, and far too quiet for Brittany Crew and Sarah Mitton.

So the Canadian shot putters blasted music. Some officials wrinkled their noses at the classic rock that blared from Crew's portable speaker while the two competed in the closest thing to track meets amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.   

But music was a deal-breaker in their preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.

"It's been really weird," Mitton said. "Luckily the officials let us play music because if not you would hear a pin drop in the background. It's pretty quiet."

"We created our own atmosphere," added Crew, the Canadian record-holder in women's shot put. "We changed up the playlist all the time, whoever's got music (would choose). It didn't really matter as long as it was loud. One official told me to turn it off, and I was like 'Are you kidding me?'"

Toronto's COVID-19 restrictions have limited indoor capacity at the indoor track and field facility at York University to just 10 people, meaning with a couple of throwers, plus officials and a videographer, even their coach Richard Parkinson wasn't able to watch their indoor competitions the past few weeks. Parkinson watched the events via live stream on social media.

Both Crew, a 27-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., who was sixth at the 2017 world championships, and the 24-year-old Mitton, from Brooklyn, N.S., have qualified for Tokyo.

If nothing else, throwing in York University's virtually empty building all winter helped prepare them for what should be a subdued experience in Tokyo. 

"It's funny. A few people have said that to me recently," Mitton said.

Olympic organizers said fans won't be allowed to cheer at events, they'll have to show their support by clapping. With COVID-19 cases climbing in Japan, it's still to be determined how many fans — if any — will be in attendance. Fans from outside Japan won't be allowed.

The throwers were apart for about four months after the pandemic arrived in Canada in March of 2020. Crew moved to live with her aunt and uncle on their farm in Breslau, Ont., where her uncle built a shot put circle. Mitton's dad, meanwhile, created a throwing circle in his garage where she could hurl the shot into a hanging tarp.

"That was really difficult, we were home on our own doing our own things, trying to make things happen and you definitely felt alone and you had to come up with your own ways to stay motivated," said Mitton, "It was very refreshing to come back and have all your teammates be there for you, when you're upset or having a bad day and you just need a little extra push."

Mitton and Crew's training group also includes Trinity Tutti, double gold medallist at the PanAm U20 championships in 2019, Ashley Pryke, the No. 2 javelin thrower in Canada, and Charlotte Bolton, a Paralympic thrower who recently shattered her own Canadian record.

"It's a great training group. They can rely on each other, they can lean on each other," Parkinson said.

Parkinson is a stickler for preparation. He scheduled the indoor mini-meets to mimic the Tokyo Olympic schedule, so the throwers competed in a mini-meet Friday in what would be the Tokyo preliminary round, and then again on Sunday, to mimic the final.

With some experts predicting the pandemic to be peaking in Japan in July, athletes will face challenges unique to these Games.

"I'm trying to prepare them for tighter security in the (athletes') village, you're probably going to have longer lines, I bet there's going to be COVID checks," Parkinson said.

Parkinson's athletes already have an ongoing "snag list" — a list of anything and everything that could go wrong in an event, and how they would solve it. It could be a broken shoelace to an official who's not correctly following the rules. They're each required to have at least 50 items on their list with solutions.

"If the official doesn't know the rules, what are you going to do about that? So you're not learning how to protest on the spot," Parkinson said. "Shoelace breaks? Well they have extra shoelaces in their bag. So there's a lot of stuff."

The group is gearing up for Tokyo with a series of meets in the U.S. Mitton threw 18.53 metres last weekend in Miramar, Fla., surpassing the automatic Olympic qualifying mark for the third time.

They'll continue competing through May 22 before heading home for Canada's mandated 14 days of isolation post-travel.

However, Crew go could straight to Europe from the U.S. to compete in a couple of Diamond League meets and earn some prize money. 

"Financially, it's been a friggin struggle this year, because a lot of my income is from prize money," Crew said. 

Crew received some financial help in November as part of CanFund's #150Women campaign.

"Otherwise I was going to have to get a job," she said.

Crew has also been struggling with a nagging groin injury and said her recent drop in weight could have contributed to a slow recovery. She's lost almost 25 pounds since October, from 264 down to almost 240 and is now focused on maintaining muscle mass.

"I just really didn't like what I looked like anymore. I was starting to hate my body, and that's not good for confidence," Crew said. "Yeah, OK, I was stronger. But I was losing my speed. This is the lightest I've been ever since high school. And I look so much different. So the body composition has definitely changed.

"It's been a little bit of an experiment, probably shouldn't experiment with it too much during the Olympic year, but I needed to make the change for myself personally, and now I feel better about myself, and I'm healthier, and way more fit."

If and when Crew and Mitton are throwing in the Tokyo Olympic final, these many months of challenges will have been worth it, Crew said.

"You know, everything happens for a reason. Usually, the best things happen at the right time for some reason, it just works out," Crew said. "It would be nice to reap the benefits of this struggle bus."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press