In the dry dock

From the Olympic Games to training with the old gadgets from your storage room. During the confinement, professional athletes have not been able to train like they used to. Now, they are looking for the best way to adapt to the new reality, marked by social distancing and their poor condition.

By Asier Herrero

Unai Mielgo (21) is a rower from the Spanish U21 rowing team. He has had to change his life completely as a professional athlete due to the confinement situation. When the Spanish government decreed the compulsory confinement, Unai was in a high-performance centre of the Spanish rowing team in Girona, Catalonia. He was getting ready to go to the U21 Rowing World Championship when from one day to the next, he was told to pack his bags and go home. “It was a very big blow because I had been preparing all year for that world championship and I felt that all the effort of a year had been for nothing.”

The pandemic has affected professional athletes mainly mentally because their daily routines have changed completely because of the confinement. The first days that Unai couldn’t train, he had a lot of uncertainty because he did not know if the rowing championship was going to take place. When he knew that it was going to be impossible to hold the championship, he started to feel very stressed because his body couldn’t adapt to not being able to train every day. To cope with so many emotions, he had to ask a psychologist for help. “For athletes, the mental factor is the key in our preparation because it affects our physical preparation. Because I was so stressed, my coach decided to call the psychologist that the federation pays for the athletes and little by little I have managed to adapt to the new reality,” says Unai.

Before the pandemic, Unai trained everyday for the U21 Rowing World Championship (Source: Unai Mielgo)

When Unai became aware of the new situation, he started to train again. As he did not have enough material to carry out a normal training, he did some exercises to adapt his body to the new reality. “The first few days, it was impossible for me to do good training because I didn’t have enough material. After making some calls, I managed to get some weights at home to prepare my body for the new training”.
Unai was lucky because soon after this, the Spanish government allowed professional athletes that do individual sports to train again, under the condition of doing it alone. “I had a special authorization to go to train in my club without anyone else and thanks to that I have recovered my physical form a little. But I have not yet managed to reach the level I had before quarantine,” says Unai.

Jose Gutierrez, Unai’s coach, has worked for the Spanish Sports Council for several years. According to him, the Spanish government shouldn’t have banned athletes from training during the confinement. “In no other country has the government banned professional athletes from training. The government ban came before the Olympic Games were cancelled. If they had been held, Spain would have made a fool of itself,” he says.

Now that the worst part of the pandemic has passed, the Spanish government has authorized professional athletes to return to high-performance centres. The athletes have been able to return to their normal life, with their coaches and companions. The first thing Unai has done is set his next goal and prepare a new workout routine. “The first thing I did when I was able to train like I used to, was to set my next goal: beat my rowing record. To achieve my goal, I decided to start with strength routines, which help me to get back in shape and get my body used to the training rhythm I had before the break.”

Unai is back to training again (Source: Unai Mielgo)

Many athletes, in addition to these psychological and physical problems, started to have financial problems as well. Unai has seen how little by little the sponsors he had, disappeared due to the economic crisis created by COVID-19. “Since there are no championships, sponsors are disappearing so we have lost our main source of income. Right now, our only income is government subsidies to elite athletes,” he says.

For Unai, the situation this pandemic has created is the toughest challenge he has ever faced. Even so, he looks forward to the future with optimism: “This situation has been the hardest of my life. It has been like an injury and the recovery process: I didn’t know it was going to happen or how long it would take me to train again. I think that this situation is going to make me stronger.”