When I phone Olympic sailing hopeful Aisling Keller to discuss her thoughts on the previous day’s postponement of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, it’s a sign of the unparalleled abnormality of the current situation that this cancellation isn’t the biggest thing on her mind.
The Olympics have historically taken place in the crippling aftermath of world wars and horrendous financial crises, only halted by wartime – a scenario not entirely dissimilar to the one the world finds itself in now.
Given these somewhat extraordinary circumstances, Keller – a Trinity student, currently on a year out from College – is holding up pretty well: “I’m okay, better off than some people, so can’t really complain.”
Keller’s sense of perspective merely a day after the International Olympic Committee announced the cancellation of the biggest sporting occasion in the world is commendable. This is an event that Keller herself had spent the past four years preparing for, and had single-handedly secured a berth for Ireland at the games after an impressive performance at last summer’s Laser Radial World Championships.
The last four months of my life have been revolving around the Olympics, in my head it’s the biggest thing in the world, and now this
When pressed further, she does eventually concede an inkling of the disappointment she must undoubtedly have felt at the announcement: “The last four months of my life have been revolving around the Olympics, in my head it’s the biggest thing in the world, and now this, the health of the world, has understandably of course knocked it off its pedestal. It’s a strange feeling.”
Not that she was in any way sceptical of the judgement reached by the Council. “It was definitely the right call”, she says, a view mirrored virtually unanimously by anxious athletes around the world.
Not only would the Games have posed a serious threat to public health, the fairness of the competition would have also been compromised, given the discrepancy in approaches to isolation and lockdown adopted by competing nations: “Some athletes were being forced to quarantine, others weren’t, which obviously ruins training routines and would be really unfair on those who had been placed under stricter measures by their government.”
Despite the significant shadow cast by both the postponement and the virus itself, there remains a silver lining – the observation of which also highlights Keller’s sense of humour despite the situation. “We just had the Worlds [World Championships, held in Melbourne], which didn’t go too well – so in a way for me it’s better”, she laughs.
Indeed, looking at sailing more widely in the context of the Olympics as a whole, she notes that postponement was actually a relatively minor disruption when compared to that seen in other sports: “We were only partially through our trials. I think a third were done, so it’s actually not the end of the world, considering other sports have already finished their qualifying cycles.”
This still leaves questions requiring answers concerning the upcoming schedule in the build-up to what will now be the 2021 Olympic Games. “Everything’s up in the air”, says a rueful Keller. “We have to see when and where trials will be this coming year, and all we know is that they’ll be at different locations from last year.”
If you thought the postponement would mean a holiday break for Keller, however, you would be mistaken. “There might be a ‘Pre-Olympics’ in Enoshima, as took place last year too, and the Worlds scheduled for 2021 will have to be re-organised now too. It’s all an uncertainty.”
While all this uncertainty evidently plagues the International Olympic Committee on a global level, the havoc wreaked logistically by the virus at an individual level is equally disorientating. When combined with the very real danger the infection poses, athletes are placed under an enormous amount of strain on a personal level. Not only does Keller have “no idea at all” when or where she’ll next be competing again, the government’s social distancing rules mean “no organised training is allowed”.
For Keller, this means going out on the water on her own, without coaching or training partners, at the nearest lake to her home in Tipperary. This has been going since March 12th, though as the nature of the situation is inherently changeable, further ambiguity emerges.
There’s no point being upset about it – it’s completely out of my control
“I don’t even know if I’m allowed to go out to train on the lake anymore”, she says. She doesn’t know what she’s training for next, she doesn’t know if she’s allowed to train – and the chaos doesn’t end there: “I was unable to do exams last summer because of the World Cup, and haven’t really been in college at all since January due to my winter and spring schedules being pretty hectic, so I’m now behind in my academic work.” And that’s without the postponement.
“I’ll probably have a similarly busy year now sailing-wise to prepare for the Olympics next year, which means I’ll have to sacrifice a lot of college work again”, she says. That’s almost two years of academia missed for Keller, most of it involuntarily. “I really want to go back in September but given how much they [the organisers] have to fit in, I’m not sure I’ll be able to.”
Many aspects of Keller’s life have been turned upside down by this virus. Yet she still somehow manages to retain a sense of positivity, despite all this damage inflicted by the threat of the virus. “There’s no point being upset about it – it’s completely out of my control”, she says.
It’s not all bad news, however: her brother returns from Canada soon. “I’m looking for a van to pick him up and isolate him in”, she laughs. With her Dad running an off-license (a store that the government said will be kept open), “we’ll be busy” she says.
“It’s strange, I’ve never been happier to be down in Tipperary.” Considering the rest of her predicament, it wouldn’t be too radical to suggest that that may well be the least strange thing about it.