Bayer, Chapman staying on track

In early March, Andy Bayer was going about his regular routine, gearing up for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

And then came the coronavirus.

One day, the 3,000-meter steeplechaser was training with IU track coach Ron Helmer, the next Helmer’s trip to the NCAA indoor championships was canceled.

The day after that Indiana announced an extended spring break, and Bayer was left working out alone at the IU track and in the weight room.

But it didn’t take long to figure out those were not good ideas either, and the university eventually agreed, closing the athletic facilities.

“A lot of people were caught off-guard with the seriousness of this,” Bayer said. “The first week or so, I was carrying on as normal, doing my track stuff, going to the weight room and then realized quickly, maybe I shouldn’t be doing that. It seemed like every day it jumped in terms of what we shouldn’t be doing and then we shouldn’t be doing this either.”

Figuring those things out has been, in part, the job of Dr. Robert Chapman, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and School of Public Health at IU and the Director of Sport Science and Medicine for USA Track and Field.

As such, Chapman is not only figuring out a plan for the nation’s elite, such as Bayer, but for anyone who competes at any level.

“The No. 1 high school participation sport for girls is track and field and No. 2 for boys is track and field, so there are 1.1 million high school kids in limbo,” Chapman said. “I’m thinking about 240 elite athletes we track for USA Track and Field but over a million at the high school level and youth clubs and road races and Masters events, so it’s even bigger than that.

“In March itself we had the Indoor Masters Championships scheduled in Baton Rouge with many of those competitors in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Then the Youth National Indoor Championships were to be held in Staten Island. We had to come together and give the organization guidance quickly on what to do.”

In retrospect, the cancellation of those events seems like a no-brainer. In the moment, it was a difficult decision.

And the fallout hasn’t stopped since.

Last week, Chapman was scheduled to be in Granada for a professional meet and would have been on a plane Monday to Doha, Qatar, for a Diamond League Meet.

Now all of that and more, including the postponement of the Olympics, is on an indefinite hold, a challenge for administrators and athletes alike.

“We were ramping up for the Olympics, which are so massive,” Chapman said. “April 1 was the deadline to get the equipment to Colorado Springs to put in containers to go to Japan. We had to get Gatorade coolers and some extra large beds for the Olympic village.

“But for us, we just rolled with the punches, but for the athletes it was incredibly stressful. They took the brunt of it, and the elite coaches had to figure out how to keep the athlete going. That was a big challenge, but it was a relief once they made the decision (to postpone).”

That was certainly the case for Bayer, who has won bronze in the 3,000 steeplechase in each of the past two U.S. Outdoor Championship meets after missing a spot on the 2016 Olympic team by one spot.

“It quickly got to a point where I thought, ‘This is going to be really hard to manage if the Olympics are going on this summer,’” Bayer said. “The Olympics are the main goal, but it felt like a relief when they made that announcement because it seemed like that was for sure the right call. Even if we had a miracle in solving this (health) crisis — a miracle would be by July at this point — it just wouldn’t be the right thing at the time with everybody rebuilding and figuring things out.

“Mentally, this is a hard thing anyway, being at home and cut off from everybody. A lot of athletes I know and talk to think it’s a positive it was pushed back and now running can be therapy instead of a stressor. It’s nice to get out and do those things but without the incredible weight of qualifying for Olympics, which is a once in a lifetime, or a couple of times in a lifetime, thing for people.”

The result is a switch of gears for Bayer, who instead of aiming to peak this summer is simply looking to maintain his conditioning in order to be ready for the resumption of competition.

World Athletics announced this past week that there could be no Olympic qualifying marks until after Dec. 1, meaning that resumption won’t be anytime soon.

“It’s been weird in a way but knowing track season is pushed back pretty far makes it easier,” he said. “Being in the weight room would be nice, but I’ve found ways to do things at home to get by. In terms of track stuff, you can switch those out for road workouts or hill workouts. This time of year, you wouldn’t normally be doing longer tempo runs, but I think of this more as a base phase again.

“It’s hard to plan training, but at the same time, I feel base phase is good right now because I find it hard at this point to put in, day in and day out, the really hard track sessions that get you ready for the peak of the season and require mental energy. It’s not sustainable to hold that for an unknown amount of time.”

Those mental challenges are part of Chapman’s work with USATF.

“We’ve had to ramp up sports psychology with all the added stress of not knowing and now the uncertainty with the world health situation,” he said. “And when can they get back out there and do what they do in competing and training, in economic stability and all those things.”

Despite the lack of Olympic qualifying, USA Track would still like to hold a national championship, be it August, September or even October, which begs the question Chapman is answering the most right now.

“The hardest part is what I call the startup question,” he said. “At some point, we’ll get back to sport. It’s an important thing to have a plan for how we’re going to do that, how we’re going to keep athletes, coaches, officials and the fans involved safe.

“When you talk about sport, it has such an influence on society as a whole. It goes beyond a track meet, so if we do it right in coming up with how we’re going to hold a national championship, how will we do it the right way with a trickle-down effect to high schools and colleges so sport can bring us out of the nightmare we’re in? The challenge is what does it look like? People think you just flip the switch and back to normal.”

Chapman heads a COVID-19 work group looking into all aspects of that process to finding a new normal. Using a mass gathering tool, the group is evaluating the necessary levels of security, testing and screening to hold an event. Then there are the limitations that may have to accompany such an event, not to mention certain planning milestones that would have to be hit in order to hold it. There is also a scheduling task force looking at all possible contingencies and dates, from best-case to worst-case scenarios.

Both groups have been in contact with other sports administrators from MLB to the NBA, but there are two words Chapman keeps coming back to.

“Manage expectations,” he said. “I think for almost every sport there isn’t any way to start up without rapid testing being available and testing every athlete, every official, every coach and no one who tests positive coming within close range of the event. Right now, false negatives are so high, you have to test twice. If we don’t quarantine, then you have to test, if not every day, then at least quite often. Maybe by late summer or early fall we can do that in a pro sports setting, but the world we live in depends on having those criteria in place.

“That’s where managing expectations comes into play. Everybody wants to get back at it. No one wants to sit around and not do the sport they love. People at home want to see it on TV but until you know everybody can be safe, that no one is in harm’s way. Until you get to that, I don’t know how you pull it off. It’s going to take a while or strict and specific guidelines.”

In the meantime, the 30-year-old Bayer is making the most of his unexpected downtime.

He’s waiting on some weight training equipment that is back-ordered, courtesy of a stipend created by Chapman and USATAF, but with two kids also at home every day, there’s plenty to keep him busy.

“We’re doing a little bit of the homeschooling work with MCCSC,” Bayer said. “We have an old house we’ve been remodeling for three years anyway with endless projects to work on. There’s definitely more time at home, but with the kids it’s been fun to get out and do bike rides, walk around the neighborhood and do stuff in the year. We’re trying to keep it as normal as possible. The kids are like, ‘When social distancing is over, can we do this or that?’ But attitudes are good around household despite it being challenging.

“I haven’t really had a summer at home in years, so that is a diamond in the rough, a way to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “There are certain things I miss out on being a professional athlete and I might be around for more things this year.”

Bayer has a sponsorship deal with Nike, and the contract runs through next year. To this point, he’s heard of no potential impact on the business front, just whatever loss of income he suffers as a result of not having meets in which to earn prize money.

However, that’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

“I’m still improving every year and feel my best running days are ahead, so I’m pretty good going with the flow,” Bayer said. “It’s a sport that is important to me, but a global pandemic is a more serious thing.

“It’s a weird purgatory right now but I’ll just keep on keeping on and we’ll work through this thing.”