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Dish soap and a bathtub — how an Olympic hopeful 'trains' in the wake of COVID-19

If the state of Colorado ever resorts to ordering residents to remain in their homes to slow the spread of coronavirus, distance runner Paul Chelimo has a creative plan to prevent that from disrupting his training for this summer’s Olympics.

He’ll grab a container of dish soap, remove his shoes and go for a run in his bathtub.

Chelimo had years ago turned the basement of his Colorado Springs home into a rudimentary gym, but one piece of equipment that he didn’t buy was a treadmill. The 29-year-old preferred using a state-of-the-art model at the nearby Olympic Training Center rather than emptying his savings on a comparable treadmill for his home or risking injury on a cheaper one.

That had never been an issue for Chelimo until this week when Colorado’s governor ordered the Olympic Training Center and all other gyms across the state to close for at least 30 days. With no warning, Chelimo and dozens of other Olympic hopefuls were left scrambling to find somewhere else to train. 

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Chelimo is one of the lucky ones. He doesn’t require too much equipment to train. For now, he can strengthen his core in his basement gym and find a nearby track or a quiet neighborhood to do his daily speed work and tempo running.

“My big worry is that there will be a lockdown and I will not be able to step out of the house each day to get a run in,” Chelimo told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t have a big house. I can’t just do a run inside my house or in the yard.” 

How to prepare for a 5,000-meter race while marooned inside a house with no treadmill is the vexing question that inspired Chelimo to dream up his oddball solution. On Monday night, he filmed himself replicating a treadmill by pouring liquid soap in a bathtub and running in place while holding onto a towel bar. 

Many on social media assumed Chelimo was only joking around when he posted the bathtub video, but the 2016 Olympic silver medalist swears he’s actually half serious. Until there is a definitive announcement that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed or cancelled, Chelimo will not allow anything to keep him from being ready for July.

“To be honest, if it gets to the point where I can’t run outside, I will do that,” Chelimo said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to get to the Olympics.” 

Where to train?

Paul Chelimo considers himself a favorite in the 5000 meters ... if the 2020 Olympics aren't canceled or postponed. (AP)

The challenges that coronavirus has presented for Chelimo mirror the experience of other athletes preparing for the Olympics. In an Olympic cycle marked by unprecedented uncertainty, athletes can no longer even count on having somewhere consistent to train. 

In addition to the closure of the Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs for at least 30 days, a similar facility in Lake Placid, N.Y., met the same fate. That’s especially devastating for track cyclists, gymnasts and other athletes who rely on the ability to train with equipment not easy to find elsewhere.

“Out of training for a month. I know I’m not alone on this, how is everyone else dealing with their Olympic preparation in these times?” Sam Mikulak, a six-time U.S. gymnastics champion who trains in Colorado Springs, said Tuesday in a Twitter post.

Pool space also has been an issue for professional swimmers who typically train in university aquatic centers or local community centers. With college campuses and other public facilities closing in light of concerns about spreading the coronavirus, even some of America’s most accomplished swimmers have been displaced.  

Since Stanford’s primary aquatic facility is now closed, five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky and two-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel both reportedly found a 25-yard pool to use a few miles up the road in Menlo Park. Lilly King, the world record holder in both the 50- and 100-meter women’s breaststroke, told USA Today that she has bounced between country clubs and the YMCA since the closure of the aquatic facility at her alma mater, Indiana.

Stories like that explain why many athletes were irritated by the IOC’s business-as-usual attitude this week. In a release sent Tuesday, the IOC insisted the Games will be held as scheduled beginning in late July and encouraged all athletes to prepare as best they can.

The IOC statement arrived one day after a sobering study by epidemiologists at London’s Imperial College further increased speculation that the Olympics could be in serious jeopardy. The study used modeling to predict that attempts to slow or mitigate coronavirus rather than actively halt or suppress it could leave hospital intensive care units overwhelmed. 

“No matter what model I’ve seen, nothing has the pandemic ending by July,” said Dr. Ali S. Khan, a former CDC director who now serves as the Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“China is at the end of its outbreak. South Korea seems to have taken care of it. Iran, Italy and the U.S. are taking off. And we have not yet started the outbreak in all these other countries that have just gotten their first, second or third case. We’re in very, very different phases of the outbreak across the world. To expect that all those phases will be over the end of July, I think it’s highly improbable. Not impossible but highly, highly improbable.”

The pessimism of infectious disease experts and the struggle to find places to train surely takes a toll on athletes, but most Olympic hopefuls are staying publicly optimistic. Pole vaulter Sandi Morris and her fiancée, Bermudan long jumper Tyrone Smith, both tweeted this week that they refuse to allow the uncertainty to derail their focus.

‘I’m not going to stop’

If Chelimo is better than some of his peers at blocking out the possibility that all his hard work could be for nothing, it’s probably a result of the mental toughness his background instilled in him. Nothing was handed to Chelimo. Nothing has come easy. 

After learning to run in the highlands of Kenya and leaving his native country to run track and get an education at a U.S. college, Chelimo joined the U.S. Army in May 2014 in part because military service provided a fast track to American citizenship. He subsequently gained entry into the army’s world-class athlete program, where he worked as a water treatment specialist and trained in pursuit of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Even the crowning achievement of Chelimo’s life required a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Wrapped in an American flag after finishing second to Mo Farah in the 5,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics, Chelimo learned live on NBC that he had been disqualified for obstructing another runner late in the race. A visibly distraught Chelimo challenged the decision and won his appeal an hour later, allowing him to keep his silver medal. 

“That was the longest wait of my life,” Chelimo told Yahoo Sports in 2016.

With Farah expected to only compete in the 10,000 meters in Tokyo if the Olympics happen, Chelimo considers himself one of the favorites in the 5,000 meters. He felt great about his training until the spread of the coronavirus forced the cancellation of all his upcoming meets and cast doubt upon whether the U.S. Track & Field Trials and the Olympics will go on as scheduled.

Since his calendar between now and the summer is now empty, Chelimo wouldn’t have any money coming in were it not for his sponsors, Nike and Xendurance, sticking with him. There’s genuine emotion and gratitude in Chelimo’s voice when he says, “I don’t know when the next time I’ll be able to race this year is, so my sponsors are my only hope to put food on my table.”

Ask Chelimo if he is worried that the coronavirus will force the IOC to cancel the Olympics, and he’ll tell you that’s out of his control. What he fears more is actually getting the virus because of how that could disrupt his training schedule and potentially his career. 

“I’ve been reading about the symptoms of coronavirus and it worries me that it affects the lungs,” Chelimo said. “That’s when I realized I can’t play with this. It’s like playing with fire. If you have respiratory problems, you cannot run.”

That’s a big reason Chelimo is happy the Olympic Training Center closed for the time being. He’ll feel less at risk running by himself or with a couple friends than he would training with a big group the next couple months. 

The only request Chelimo has for the IOC is a swift decision so that athletes aren’t working for nothing the next few months. He’d be bitterly disappointed if the Olympics are postponed or canceled, but he also recognizes that it’s a public health issue and lives are at stake. 

Until a decision is made, Chelimo will keep pushing — even if that means running in place in a soapy bathtub. He knows that’s what his rivals in Kenya and Ethiopia would do. 

“They haven’t been as affected by the coronavirus yet, so I cannot rest and say it’s becoming too tough,” Chelimo said. “If the Olympics are still on, I’m still training. I’m not going to stop.”