Feature18 May 2020

Cautious optimism the theme as some athletes begin to ease out of lockdown


Lukas Weisshaidinger training at his own facility in Taufkirchen (© Lukas Weisshaidinger)

Athletes in different parts of the world are gradually returning to their regular training facilities as restrictions put in place in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic begin to ease.

We spoke with three European athletes, Italian high jumper Elena Vallortigara and Austrians Lukas Weisshaidinger and Ivona Dadic, to gauge their thoughts and emotions.

Vallortigara: ‘I found a very good balance’

Returning to her regular training facilities earlier this month undoubtedly provided a welcome moment of calm amid the chaos of the previous couple of months for Vallortigara.

The high jump international had endured a period of pain and heartache at the suffering caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in her homeland and also sadness and anxiety due to her rapidly changing athletics circumstances.


Out of lockdown, Elena Vallortigara back at her training track in Siena


Yet the moment lockdown restrictions were eased and she was allowed to once again return to her regular training environment this represented a key moment in her road to emotional healing for the 28-year-old.

“Since returning to the track, it’s been a special feeling,” explains Vallortigara. “I missed it so much.

“I’m happy to have regained a bit of normality. It means less stress, because there I have all I need to train properly. I know the environment, I feel safer and able to build a better condition than staying home, training in a limited way.”

Sensibly adopting a patient approach to training at her base in Siena, Tuscany, Vallortigara is happy to once again be in an environment which will best enable her to reach the form which saw her clear a lifetime best of 2.02m in 2018.

An ankle injury curtailed her progress in 2019 but she appeared on the right track earlier this year after securing a 1.96m Olympic qualification mark in February’s Italian Indoor Championships.

Yet by late-March, Covid-19 had started to take a deadly grip in Italy. 

“Hearing and reading all the news about the virus, I started to feel anxious and even training at the track no longer became a pleasure,” she says. “Siena seemed a ghost town, going to the supermarket was (and still is) like a mission. I was very sad and afraid of what could happen.”

The Italian Government called for a lockdown in an effort to control the virus and the move forced the Italian to adapt her training needs into her 40sqm one bedroom apartment.

There she trained 90 minutes a day, five times a week focusing on mobility, stabilization, no-load strength, running and drills to maintain flexibility.

“I thought it would have been easier, but adaptation took a lot of my energy,” she says.


Elena Vallortigara back at her training track in Siena


Meanwhile, she also initially struggled to mentally cope with the gravity of living in the middle of a global pandemic.

“At the beginning, my anxiety was so high that I felt like I was always ill,” she adds. “So I decided to stop reading and listen to unofficial news and I concentrated on other positive things, on my relationships and on myself. I also cooked a lot and took care of my house. It hasn’t been easy, but I found a very good balance.” 

The return to normal training for Vallortigara has without doubt proved a welcome sanctuary but she admits it is still hard to always maintain equilibrium in times of uncertainty.

“I’m motivated thinking about the Olympics next year, or the World Indoor Championships, but at this moment I prefer to focus on goals concerning myself and my training, regardless of the possibility to compete this summer,” she says. “Of course, I can’t wait to compete again and I hope with all my heart there will be some meetings this summer.”

Weisshaidinger: ‘It is very important I have something to train for’

For Weisshaidinger, the bronze medallist at last year’s World Championships, finding any degree of normality during the pandemic has been difficult to attain.

So it is no surprise when several days after he restarted full training following the easing of lockdown restrictions earlier this month, he recalls with enthusiasm when he learned of his next competition.

“For me, this meant I was going back to business,” recalls Weisshaidinger of the moment his coach, Gregor Hogler, spoke of organising a mini-meet in Austria in June.

“The thought of that meeting gave me the same feeling as competing at the Olympics. Knowing that we can compete again in Austria was like a switch going off in my brain. The feeling I had for days after was great. I know I maybe have only two of three local meets in Austria this year but I feel honoured and very happy at this. It is very important I have something to train for.”

Weisshaidinger had enjoyed the best season of his career to date in 2019. Apart from his Doha podium appearance, he was consistently a top three performer on the Diamond League circuit.

Crediting an improved technique for his progress he set about training during the winter of 2019-20 with the aim of bridging the gap between himself and the world top two – Daniel Stahl of Sweden and Jamaica’s Fedrick Dacres.

All was on track in the early part of the year and then COVID-19 arrived. Lockdown followed, although it was the Austrian’s good fortune he could step into a ready-made training facility.


Lukas Weisshaidinger at his training base in Sudstadt


Having struggled for funding prior to the 2016 Olympic Games, back then he paid €60,000 to set up his own “high performance centre” at his brother’s farm in the village of Taufkirchen some 250km from Vienna in Upper Austria.

A barn had been converted into a gym with a weightlifting platform and spin bike. He also had the option to jump hurdles and throw into a net. A second outside circle was also set up throw into the meadow.

“I was very thankful I had access to such facilities,” he says. “It provided the perfect foundation for training in terms of running, jumping, lifting and throws work.”

Yet even with what he terms as the “farmer’s high performance facility” to draw upon, Weisshaidinger is delighted to have returned to his regular training centre in Sudstadt near Vienna, where he has been based for the past four years.

“Training with no massage for five to six weeks (in lockdown) was really hard,” he adds. “I also trained during that time with my coach on Skype but it is much easier for him to be on hand for training. He sees things differently in 3D!”

For now he is focused on competing. He hopes that several German athletes will also be able compete in the Austrian meets next month but understands that this may be more “fantasy” than reality.

“It has been a crazy year and I can’t quite believe that this (global pandemic) has happened during my athletics career,” he adds. “But we all have to live with it, do our best and be there for our families.”

Dadic: 'Making the best out of every day'

Meanwhile, preparedness and a positive attitude have helped combined events standout Dadic emerge from the restrictions in a good place.

Now back in full training in St Polten, Dadic feels she has reaped the rewards of her strategy and is on track to deliver when competition resumes.

The 2018 world indoor pentathlon silver medallist had placed second in the last year’s heptathlon in Ratingen but her hopes of a medal at the World Championships in Doha vanished after feeling a sharp pain in her hamstring in the 100m hurdles.


Ivona Dadic at her training base in St. Polten


She was unfortunately forced to quit the competition and after the problem was diagnosed as a sciatic nerve issue she took time to recover both mentally and physically.

Dadic restarted training a little later than usual but everything was on track for a positive season opener in Gotzis only for COVID-19 to intervene.

“When we saw that the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Europe, and when it started spreading to Italy we already knew it would get serious everywhere and that things would change a lot.

“I tried to get prepared. I installed a weight room in my house and tried to get all the training equipment I needed for some weeks of good training. We also made a plan with what that I could do at home. I focused on mostly physical things like weight training and speed endurance. These parts of training went pretty well. Our way of thinking was, ‘let’s think about what we can do and not about things we can’t do’.”

Following a strict plan during five weeks of lockdown she rigorously trained from three to five hours per day and she also received basic massage treatment from her boyfriend who has undertaken massage classes.

“Making the best out of every day” paid dividends when Dadic returned to full training at the beginning of May.

“I was really happy to see my coach (Philipp Unfried) after five weeks again, and return to technical training,” explains Dadic. “It was also very interesting to see the results of my home workouts - and it made me happy to see that I’d executed the programme and used the time well.”


Ivona Dadic resumes training in St. Polten


Returning to “normal training” has been a huge relief for the 26-year-old athlete, although due to the travel restrictions she has been forced to cancel a long jump training camp in the US. This has meant long jump sessions have been carried out via a WhatsApp connection with her long jump coach, four-time world champion Dwight Phillips.

For Dadic returning to her regular training facilities represents a step in the right direction.

“I’m very happy to be back in training because I missed my usual training life,” she explains. “I just hope that this positive development continues and soon we will have competitions.”

Steve Landells for World Athletics