Sandi Morris: ‘You have to pretend like the Olympics is going forward’

The Olympic pole vault silver medalist talks about creating her own competitive opportunities amid the pandemic and the challenges of staying motivated for Tokyo 2021

Like everyone else, Sandi Morris was left no choice but to shelve her plans when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

The Olympic pole vault silver medalist and American indoor record holder was forced to get creative over the past year as the sport halted to a standstill. With her training facilities at the University of Arkansas shut down for nine months, Morris moved back to her parents’ house in South Carolina and constructed a homemade pole-vault setup with 120ft runway in the neighborhood. With no competitions on the horizon and no prize or appearance money coming in, she held a virtual garage sale of old meet-worn gear and memorabilia to help make ends meet. For every problem, a solution.

The 28-year-old Morris, who made the US Olympic team for Rio only seven weeks after breaking her wrist at a meet in the Czech Republic, is no stranger to finding a way forward when best-laid plans gone awry. But even she can’t downplay the challenges Covid-19 has presented American track and field in the extended, unprecedented run-up to Tokyo 2021.

“I want our sport to survive and I believe it will, but this has been very, very hard on track and field,” Morris told the Guardian. “A lot of athletes are getting dropped. Their contracts are being cut, simply because there’s no competition. Nike dropped a lot of their athletes recently. There’s a lot of speculation going on – and I don’t know exactly Nike’s reasoning behind everything – but I believe it’s probably because we’re not going to be on television. We’re not going to be out there in their uniforms on TV as much promoting their company. So I think that companies like Nike are using this as an opportunity to get out of a sport that they, I guess, don’t believe is going to be the future. You see people who are in the top 10 in the world out there competing right now with no sponsor.”

One such creative opportunity took place last month when Morris competed in a series of indoor meets that drew a star-studded field of mostly North Americans to the Arkansas college town of Fayetteville, including Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, Jamaican hurdler Omar McLeod and US stars like Allyson Felix, Ryan Crouser and Vashti Cunningham.

The American Track League was founded seven years ago by Paul Doyle, who manages Morris and several other elite track and field athletes, but took on a newfound importance this year given the dearth of available top-flight competition in the US. The four-meet series, which was broadcast by ESPN, didn’t even have a major sponsor until Zenni Optical signed on at the last minute, long after a waiting list of entrants had committed despite the lack of prize money for the winners.

“A lot of this is not only driven by our need as athletes just to keep competing and hope that we’re still ready to go when the world ‘goes back to normal’, whatever that means, but also because the Olympics are not canceled,” said Morris, who finished second to Greece’s Katerina Stefanidi in Rio. “They are still as of now going forward. We’re probably looking at a Games without any fans, an extremely different type of Games than we’ve ever seen before.

“So we’re motivated to keep competing and stay in shape because you can’t lose it. Even taking a month off, that’s a long time. It takes double that time to get back into peak condition, in my opinion and from my experience. So you take a week off, you need a couple of weeks to feel sharp again.”

In a normal Olympic year, Morris would be looking ahead to the European meets and the Diamond League series. But travel restrictions have made it extremely complicated for North American athletes to take part, which Morris said is having a disproportionate impact.

“We are definitely at a disadvantage because we’re still looking at the Olympics, so we’re still dealing with world ranking systems,” she said. “And so in order for us to go get world ranking points, we have to get to the competitions. And right now it’s just an absolute nightmare to get around because you have to get us PCR tests within 48 hours of traveling. You have to be super-safe. Some countries are completely closed. So it is definitely a disadvantage for American athletes right now.”

Some athletes, including Olympic gold medalists Tianna Bartoletta and Bianca Knight, have sponsored events out of their own pockets. Aside from a need for world-class competition with Tokyo only five months away, the exposure to potential sponsors is just as crucial.

“This is just showing you how much American athletes want this to work, because we recognize this is a chance for us to start our own track league and have more competitive opportunities on American soil,” Morris said.

With the US Olympic trials scheduled for June in Oregon, the prevailing uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Games is hard for athletes like Morris to put entirely out of mind, adding a mental toll to the physical rigors of training.

“I feel like it’s hard to put it out of your head, but that’s what I’m trying to do is pretend, pretend that it’s 100% going forward,” Morris says. “Like there’s no other way to train. You have to train 100% all in and if you let it creep into your head that something might get canceled, then it is harder to stay motivated and you get depressed about it. So I’m pretending like I haven’t heard anything. I’m pretending like it’s going forward and I’m just going to stay positive and train as if it’s happening for sure.”