Olympic hopefuls Gevvie Stone, Elle Purrier have very different paths ahead to Tokyo in 2021
Eleven days before the Olympics were postponed, Gevvie Stone went home. Her route was circuitous and unplanned: A 34-year-old, two-time rowing Olympian and silver medalist in single sculls four years ago in Rio, Stone had been scheduled to fly from a training base in Austin, Texas to Sarasota, Fla., where the 2020 Olympic Trials would take place in April. Thunderstorms disrupted her itinerary and she was forced to lay over in Charlotte, N.C. On the ground, Stone got a text message from her father, Gregg, who is also her coach, telling her that the Trials had been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. (This would be announced publicly four days later). Shaken, though not entirely shocked, Stone went home to Boston to adapt to a new and shifting reality, at the same time clinging to hope.
Seven days later, Elle Purrier also went home. Her route was familiar, but also unplanned. A 25-year-old middle distance runner whose ascendant performances had made her a solid favorite to make the U.S. team in either the 1,500 meters or the 5,000 meters, Purrier had been training in Boston with a group of runners under coach Mark Coogan. She had been following news of the virus outbreak and absorbed the value of social distancing. Inside her Brighton apartment, one of her roommates had been traveling; outside, the streets were suddenly quieter than normal. ``It was kind of eerie,’’ says Purrier. ``I didn’t feel comfortable.’’ She drove four hours to northern Vermont, where her fiancée, Jamie St. Pierre, lives not far from the dairy farm where Elle was raised and where social distancing is not a decision but a reality.
This we have learned, over the years and across the various Olympiads: There is no typical Olympian or Olympic aspirant. They are male and female, young and old, urban and rural. They are tall and short, slender and stout, swift and powerful. They are funded by international corporations or they work a day job. They have put a life on hold to chase medals or they have no other life at all, quite yet, just this one. But they are all beholden to the calendar, which ruthlessly demands they be perfect on one day, in one place. That calendar is their life and on Tuesday that calendar was moved.
Gevvie Stone (full name: Genevra) has been to two Olympics and was chasing a third; had she made the team and raced in Tokyo, it would have been her last major competition before resuming her residency in emergency medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. As her Twitter profile notes: ``Trust me, I’m a doctor.’’ Tokyo was to have been her coda.
Elle Purrier (full name: Elinor) is nine years younger than Stone and chasing her first Olympics. Had she made the team and raced in Tokyo, it quite possibly would not have been her last anything, because she is improving so rapidly -- but no athlete is promised another race or another day. She is for now, a professional runner, who on Feb. 8 at the Millrose Games in New York ran the second-fastest women’s indoor mile in history, 4:16.85, and the fastest ever by an American, almost four seconds faster than the record held for 37 years by the legendary Mary Decker Slaney. Another life lies ahead for her, but more distant than Stone’s.
At home in Boston (Cambridge, Mass., actually), Stone waited, as the virus spread and applied increasing pressure on host nation Japan, the International Olympic Committee (and by extension the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, to exert its own influence) to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She rowed alone on the Charles River and lifted weights with three other rowers, first at the Boston University boathouse, and now elsewhere, with closures at BU. Then she went home to isolate with her boyfriend. In an interview two days before the Games were postponed, Stone told me, ``I’m living in the same state of anxiety as most people in the world. But I’ve been very lucky. I’m able to train. I’m in favor of holding the Olympics, as long as it’s determined to be safe.’’
A day later, in an email, her tone was different: ``I have seen all the news, and I’m not sure what to make of it... in that it looks like a postponement is more and more likely, and it’s hard to wrap my head around that after training for years with the goal of summer 2020.’’
Purrier waited, too. She kept her world small, moving between her fiancee’s home and her family’s farm, 15 minutes away. She did long runs on the country roads, keeping mileage high, building a strength base for the track season ahead. For normalcy and structure, early in the mornings, she helped with milking the family’s 60 dairy cows, as she had done throughout her life, before leaving for the University of New Hampshire in 2013. In an interview one day before the Games were postponed, she told me, ``It seems like the Olympics are going to be postponed. Everything was coming down to these last three months before Trials. It’s going to be a letdown. It’s going to be a disappointment.’’
Each in her own way, understood what was coming. Tuesday would bring the end – whether permanently or temporarily – to a journey. And for Olympians, it is always that journey that most properly measures what we so often consume as a moment. It is why they celebrate with family members or longtime coaches, together embracing the hours, days, months and years that were poured into the effort. The sacrifice in pursuit of a personal success that only they can understand.
Stone is rowing royalty. Her mother was a 1976 Olympian and two-time bronze medalist at the world championships (1977-’78) and her father (and coach) was a nationally prominent single sculler who might have made the U.S. Olympic team had it not boycotted the 1980 Olympics. Gevvie is six feet tall in socks. She graduated from Princeton in 2007, made the 2012 Olympic team and finished seventh in single sculls. Two years later she graduated from Tufts Medical School and put that career on hold to pursue the medal she won in Rio.
After Rio, she retired and started her residency. She loves medicine. ``I love the emergency room,’’ says Stone. ``I love the adrenaline rush of not knowing what’s going to come through the door.’’ But something was off. Twice she told friends she was retiring and both times she cried. Once, while speaking to elementary school kids, she was asked why, if she still loved rowing, was she retiring? The question landed in her heart. A friend suggested that if she was conflicted, try telling somebody you’re training for Tokyo and see how that feels. ``So I called up another colleague and said, `I’m going to train for Tokyo,’ and I immediately got butterflies,’’ says Stone. She went to her residency director and asked to take another leave, and it was granted. One more Games.
Purrier won 16 state championships at tiny Richford High School in Vermont, and then was an 11-time All-American at UNH. The irresistible story of the farm girl who milked cows in the morning and dusted rivals in the afternoon was told endlessly, and obscured her soaring talent. She has only gotten better as a professional; in her Millrose victory she sat fourth behind a stiff pace and then sprinted past favored Konstanze Klosterhalfen of Germany to win easily. Her performance demonstrated the combination of endurance and explosiveness that wins global championships.
Purrier was building toward a series of spring races, while the running world awaited her decision on whether she would enter the 1,500 meters or 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which had been scheduled for late June, in the rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Purrier had finished seventh in the 1,500 meters in the 2018 NCAA Championships, in the old Hayward Field. ``I remember being in that race, and knowing it was the last race at Hayward Field,’’ says Purrier. ``I was looking forward to going back to the new one.’’
Official news of the postponement came early on Tuesday morning. Neither Stone nor Purrier was surprised. Both will need more than a day or a week to process what’s happened. (As will thousands of other athletes. The Olympics have been cancelled, but never postponed by a year; it is new territory for all of them).
Stone’s position is more tenuous; she had already begun a life after sports, and now that life must be embraced or pushed back another year. As the virus grew, she had communicated with her friends in medicine. Boston hospitals were – and still are – awaiting an anticipated wave of virus patients. ``In a way, it helped me to talk to them,’’ says Stone. ``There was anxiety to not knowing about the Olympics, but it’s a lot less anxiety-provoking than my fellow residents waiting, not knowing when this massive number of patients might arrive.’’
She has begun talking with family and friends, most pointedly her friends in the elite rowing world, who can better understand the variables. There are emotions to navigate, and uncertainties still in play. ``We don’t know the dates for the 2021 Games,’’ said Stone, after the postponement was announced. ``It’s going to take some time to sort through both the emotions and the logistics of it. I’ve put everything on hold for rowing for two years now. It can be seen as `What’s one more year?’ but also, `An entire year more?’ I was excited to race this summer and I was excited to restart residency in August. Now, a lot of unknowns. It’s heartbreaking and hard. But I know I’m fortunate that this is my pain, not life or death.’’
And this for now: ``I’m still rowing, both to keep options open and because that’s where I get my moments of sanity and calm these days.’’
There is also one other possibility. If she is needed in the hospital, for a wave of coronavirus patients or for anything else, she will go there. ``I took a Hippocratic oath,’’ says Stone. ``I have offered myself [to the hospital] if that time comes.’’
Purrier is in a very different place. ``Every year of my career I’ve gotten a little bit faster and a little bit stronger,’’ says Purrier. The rising athlete consumes this postponement differently from the athlete who is closer to the end. Youth is a safety net, but the emotional insulation it provides goes only so far. ``I’m sad and let down,’’ says Purrier. ``But I support the decision. In the grand scheme of things, a big part of the world’s population is sick, the economy is at risk. This was the right thing.’’ And this, on the athletic side:`` I feel good about where my running is going.’’
She’ll stay in Vermont for now, where she’s comfortable. There are hills to run and a serviceable track down the road in St. Albans. Together with her coach, she’ll sort out how much to race in the spring and summer, if there are any races at all. For Purrier, this is an interruption, not a crossroads. Nothing else awaits but more of the same, for now. ``I’m all in,’’Purrier texted Wednesday afternoon. And then another text: ``No plan to stop anytime soon.’’
Two athletes. Two paths toward an uncertain future.