Preparing for Olympics during a pandemic

Nadia Isa

The Olympic Games have been cancelled three times in their 124-year history but have never been postponed – until now. The issue facing athletes selected to compete in this month’s Tokyo Games, now rescheduled for July 2021, is the first of its kind. After much debate the Games were pushed back one year and athletes selected to compete now have 15 months to remain at the top of their game.

SSAA member Laura Coles, 33, will make her long-awaited Olympic debut in Women’s Skeet. After missing out on the Rio Games in 2016, Coles gave up shooting completely for several weeks before deciding her passion for the sport was too great. “Those weeks I didn’t shoot anything but did genuinely miss training and decided to eventually keep going,” Coles said. “I can’t imagine my life without it and don’t know what I would do to be honest. To stop shooting would be almost the equivalent of chopping my right arm off.”

For Coles, the chance to compete for Australia at the highest level is a dream come true. “It means so much, I don’t think I can even put it into words. I remember questioning whether I’d ever get there and how I could live with not making it and that was always a painful thought. To have it actually happen was almost like living a dream. For the first week I was like, is this real, is this actually happening?”

But for Coles the Olympic dream was in serious danger. After she was selected the Australian Olympic Committee considered withdrawing from the Games amid COVID-19, before organisers announced the competition would be postponed for a year. “Then we didn’t know if those qualifications would stand so it was about 10 days in limbo, not knowing whether I was actually going,” she said. “I thought the universe had a twisted sense of humour so yes, I was concerned and didn’t really know where to let my head go.”

But with selection firmly secured, Coles has turned her focus to preparing. Under normal circumstances, the Skeet shooter would train five days a week at her local range in Whiteman, WA but instead has been focusing on her mental game. “We’re just going to have to go with the flow a bit and make the best of this situation but when it does come around I’ll be in the right headspace for it.”

Also making her Olympic debut will be young-gun Katarina Kowplos from South Australia. The 18-year-old SSAA member was a favourite during qualification but still stunned when told she’d made the team. “Honestly surprised, really pleasantly surprised,” said Kowplos. “Going to the Olympics you can’t not be excited, but also a little apprehensive with all this stuff [COVID-19] going on. Australia is doing pretty well in the midst of it all but other countries aren’t, so you don’t know how it’s going look come next year.”

Unable to head out for training, Kowplos has implemented the use of dry fire with a SCATT machine which allows her to analyse results. “At home, just aiming at a wall can really help, just holding practice and doing a bit of dry firing helps during this time.”

The youngster has split her final year of school to manage her shooting commitments and is currently completing Year 13 at Golden Grove High School while working part-time and using her extra free time to focus on studying. “I’ve been giving myself a bit of a mental break which I believe is helping a lot, as it’s been a big rush during the past four months. I’m only 18 so it’s hard to balance a full-time shooting career, now Olympic selection and also Year 13.”

But she’ll be back in regular training soon and will use the Olympic delay to her advantage. “When the restrictions ease I’ll be able to do a lot of practice competitions before the Games which isn’t normally a thing. While it’s kind of weird to know so far in advance, I have time to train on particular things that will benefit me more than I could have previously.”

Kowplos is hoping to compete in Women’s 3-Position, Air Rifle and Air Rifle Mixed Pairs and is coached by former Olympic shooter Carrie Quigley, supplemented by group coaching sessions and a personalised fitness program as part of the Aiming for Gold squad.

Leading up to the Olympics the youngster will put in five days of shooting practice a week and one day of gym work. “It will be great experience and hopefully it’s not going to be my last Games so I’m going to be putting as much effort as I can into improving myself to the point where I feel happy with the results,” Kowplos said. “I’m being realistic and using this to shoot my best possible score for Australia, putting myself out there to perform as well as I can on any given day.”

While one of the youngest on the team at 18, she says shooting is a fairly unique sport where age doesn’t always matter. “Especially on the world stage – you’ll see a 21-year-old shoot 637 which is an unreal score, next to a 40-year-old shooting 630. You can’t expect a person based on their age to shoot a certain score. I’m excited to see the best of the best . . . it’s going to be quite surreal.”

Also selected for Tokyo is Trap shooter and fellow SSAA member James Willett. With more experience on the big stage he’ll make his return for Australia after competing at Rio in 2016. He placed fifth four years ago but has since earned the title of World Cup champion and will be aiming for gold next year. “A lot of hard work and dedication goes into it and I’m really looking forward to representing Australia in Tokyo,” he said.

The 24-year-old said the delay has changed the way he’ll train in the upcoming months, but he’s determined to remain focused. “It’s going to be a difficult spell but I’ve been trying to remain as fit as I can throughout the isolation period,” said Willett. “It’s a lot different to anything that’s gone before but I’ll look for the opportunities it represents and train hard through the next 12-14 months.”

Willett was fortunate enough to have a full Olympic Trap range built earlier this year on his family’s property at Mulwala in New South Wales. “I’ve been shooting about one day a week just to keep the form ticking over on the home range. I’m lucky to still be able to at least train.” And the home set-up has allowed dad Arthur to help with coaching. “It’s a real advantage as I prepare and will hopefully be a sound investment over the next however many years I have in the sport.”

In the lead-up to the Games, Willett will step up his regime to ensure he’s doing some form of mental or physical training every day. “It’s about doing as much as I can to minimise mistakes when the time comes,” he said.

While cited among the Aussie favourites for gold, Willett has remained level-headed. “I hopefully have many years left in the sport which somehow takes a little bit of the pressure off in my mind and helps me focus on each event as it comes.”

The athletes have acknowledged the unusual yet similar situation they find themselves in but are all up for the challenge. “We’ll just go with the flow a little bit and make the most of this,” said Coles. “I’m looking to do my best for Australia, whatever that looks like, and no matter whether I come first, second or last I’ll be proud just to be wearing the green and gold.”

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