Last Monday there was hope, still a chance the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo would go off as planned.
“It’s something that kind of caught me by surprise, but I’m trying to adapt,” Saints Peter and Paul High senior Tyler Christianson said of the coronavirus, which had yet to postpone the Summer Games, but had forced the cancellation or postponement of practically every professional, college and high school sports season around the globe. “Whatever I can do to stay in shape.”
Though pools had been shut down for over a week and a half because of the pandemic, Christianson, a member of the Panama Olympic swim team that was scheduled to compete in Tokyo, was still training. There were weights to lift and various dry-land and yoga exercises to work through. Christianson even went as far as to slip into a wetsuit for an hour-long, 4-mile swim in the cold of the Miles River just to stay in shape.
“Right after I had second thoughts,” Christianson said with a slight laugh of his cold-river swim. “I’m just trying to adapt the best I can to keep my progress moving forward.”
Then last Tuesday morning arrived with news the Summer Games would be pushed back to 2021 because of the coronavirus.
“I guess it’s something I kind of saw coming; something I had been preparing for,” Christianson said last Wednesday evening of the postponement. “But definitely some feelings of disappointment, just because I felt like it was in the homestretch of getting ready to go and all that. But you can’t really let that get you down. You just got to move on.”
The day before Tuesday’s deflating and heartbreaking verdict, Christianson, who has citizenship in the United States and Panama, spoke as if he had already come to grips with the idea that the International Olympic Committee might move this Olympiad back one year.
“Obviously there’s going to be some disappointment because it’s been on my calendar for so long,” Christianson said. “This is all I’ve been working for.
“But the most important thing is everyone’s healthy, safe,” Christianson added. “I just hope this thing gets cleared up. I hope they find a cure and get it out. Hopefully everything can return to the normal time table. But like I said, I’ve got to be willing to adapt. If it happens to be 2021 then so be it. I’ll be ready for then.”
Hilary Yager, who has coached Christianson for four years at the Naval Academy Aquatic Club, wasn’t surprised by her star pupil’s reaction.
“He’s an incredible kid,” Yager said of Christianson. “His first response was, ‘It just gives me a year to get better.’ Completely optimistic. And to be honest with you, he’s absolutely right. He’s on the upswing here. His foot is on the accelerator pedal and he’s just going to get faster. So to be honest with you, this could be a blessing in disguise.”
There was no disguising the momentum Christianson had built through his final season in the high school ranks, as he delivered one big performance after another.
In late January he clocked a career-best and meet-record time of 1 minute, 46.23 seconds to win the 200-yard individual medley, and flirted with another personal-record en route to winning the 100-yard breaststroke (54.13) at the National Catholic Championships at Loyola University in Baltimore. Christianson was selected the swimmer of the meet for a second consecutive year for his performance, which included teaming with Sts. Peter & Paul teammates Paul Dyer, Kai Parker and Ethan LaPointe to win the 200-yard freestyle relay in a school-record 1:33.39.
“That was awesome,” Christianson said of the relay that broke a record that had stood for 16 years.
Christianson continued to win and impress during the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference Championships in early February. For the first time in his career he went under 50 seconds in the 100-yard butterfly with a first-place 49.60. He won the 100 backstroke (50.74) and again teamed with Dyer, Parker and LaPointe to win the 200 free relay.
The 6-foot, 180-pound senior pieced together yet another sizzling performance later in the month with six victories at the USA Swimming Maryland State Championships, setting personal-records in five of his six victories: 100 breaststroke (53.66), 200 breaststroke (1:55.53), 400 IM (3:46.69), 100 backstroke (48.88) and 200 back (1:47.16). He also won the 200 IM.
He continued to train with his club team in Annapolis throughout the week. Everything appeared to be going according to the plan Christianson and Yager had set in place two years ago in preparation for Tokyo. Then came last Tuesday’s coronavirus-induced postponement.
“It was all coming together real nicely,” said Christianson, who was scheduled to swim the 200-meter IM in Tokyo (his 2:03.16 is the fastest on Panama’s national team). “And then this kind of sucker-punch set things back a little bit. It’s something I talked to my coach about, something that I’m prepared to kind of go out (and work for) again. And then by the time the Olympics roll around again I’ll be in college. And I think it will be a lot more work and I’ll be in better shape.”
“Our program is a little bit limited in the fact we don’t do two-a-days,” Yager said. “We don’t really have access to a weight room. I think he’s probably going to get to college and just take off. For him there’s a little bit of a silver lining in this. All good stuff there.”
Yager believes threaded in that silver lining is a chance for Christianson to not only go faster in 2021, but to compete in more than one event.
“If he were going into the Olympics this summer, he may make it into a preliminary final; he may have made that first preliminary cut where he is right now,” Yager said. “But like in a year? He could very well make it a lot further, which is the exciting part of it. Which is a great thing for him.
“There are so many ups and downs in swimming,” Yager continued. “He’s certainly experienced them. It’s funny, most people only hear the great things that are happening to him, but with all those great things have come the lows as well. And that really does prepare you for some setbacks like this. So now, there’s a good chance he could be adding some events. Like I said, it could be a great thing.”
The chance to go even faster and possibly qualify for other events figures to get a boost at the University of Notre Dame, where Christianson signed his national letter of intent to attend on Nov. 14 of last year. Listening to Christianson’s approach to college academics is much like hearing his perspective on having the Olympics moved back a year.
“For me, I’m much more of an academic kind of guy,” said Christianson, who estimated he was contacted by over 30 schools, but only made campus visits to Notre Dame and Michigan. “Not to say I’m taking my athletics out of the question, but swimming’s not really a sport that’s going to set you and your family up as you can say. It’s not like the NFL or the NBA, where you’re making millions. So I guess I had to kind of look at it from the perspective that, yes, this is the sport that I fell in love with, that I’m really enjoying right now. But you know, it’s going to come to an end at some point.
“And I think I can’t just look at how fast I’m going to get,” added Christianson, who plans to study business at South Bend. “I’m going to the best swim school that I can get to, but I’ve got to look at my education and what’s going to set me up best for the future. So I looked for the best blend of those two, and to me Notre Dame was it. Just outstanding academics, and I think that their program is really coming through, and I guess we all have the same goal in mind, to just keep climbing up and up in the ranks. I think they can really bring me to a new level as soon as I get there. That’s kind of why I chose them.”
Yager thinks Notre Dame will indeed take Christianson to another level. She also thinks Christianson and an outstanding incoming freshman class could reciprocate and boost the Fighting Irish’s fortunes.
“He’s definitely going to be one of those that’s a contender at the NCAA level, D1 level,” Yager said. “Notre Dame has had an incredible recruiting year. So their entire team coming in is going to be really strong. I cannot wait to see where they go. I would be very excited if I were that coach.”
Yager may have those same feelings next summer, when Christianson is scheduled to swim in the Summer Games in Tokyo.