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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 11, 2020
One throw in February changed Sarah Mitton’s Olympic path and in the process may have been the catalyst that helped her through the doldrums of training in isolation.
The Brooklyn shot putter has been on the rise but was dealing with the pressure of making that Olympic-qualifying throw.
The 24-year-old started the 2020 season with the Canadian team on a tour through Australia and New Zealand and starting to get some decent results. Mitton said she was making progress through the early competitions and getting closer to an Olympic auto-qualifying mark.
It was her third stop in Auckland, New Zealand at the Sir Graeme Douglas International Continental Tour event that she achieved her Olympic standard.
Mitton’s first two throws were subpar for her talent level and she decided to throw caution to the wind in her third attempt.
“I didn’t start well, my first two throws were low to mid 17s and I was thinking this isn’t what I’ve been doing (all tour),” said Mitton. “I think I was trying to throw far, I was aiming for that standard too much and then on the next throw I said to my coach (Richard Parkinson) 'I have to pull this together and go as fast as I can and whatever happens, happens.'
“Just a little bit of the weight off the shoulders and taking the pressure off really allowed me to put my foot on the gas. That’s when I let go of my throw and I looked at my coach because it didn’t feel like my best throw ever. It was almost too effortless and when they read the mark (18.84 metres) out loud and we were almost in shock,” she laughed after passing the Olympic qualifying standard.
“As soon as it happened, it was instant relief and satisfaction,” she added. “Two and three years of training, it was like ‘wow, I did it.’”
Mitton said the key was to clear her head of numbers and let the body do the work.
“It’s so hard to explain because the shot is the combined finesse of speed and power. It’s about letting go (the mindset) of trying to throw far and letting your body do it.”
The throw was good enough to win the event, beating her hero and two-time Olympic and four-time world champion Valerie Adams of the host country.
“It was really neat because I was competing with Valerie Adams, the queen of shot put. She’s just an awesome competitor, a great person and that was really cool for me because she is someone I really look up to when I was younger. So to be able to compete with her and especially beating her in the competition was the highlight of my career.”
Mitton was hoping for more highlights and this week she would have been in Montreal looking to cement her place on Athletics Canada’s team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She needed a top three-finish which seemed like a certainty.
It would have been a great birthday present for Mitton, who turned 24 last week. Instead she at home with her parents, where she has been since returning to Canada from the tour Down Under.
Mitton, who trains in Toronto, was taking a week off in Nova Scotia when the athletics world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is probably the biggest disappointment that I’ve had to overcome and adapt to, especially after qualifying in February and then around March 10 the COC announced we weren’t going to the Olympics. It was a pretty big upset after a pretty big high in my career.”
Throw in the uncertainty of training in isolation without the ‘incredible’ support staff that Mitton had become reliant on and it would have been easy to let the season go off the rails.
“I came home to Nova Scotia for about a week, to have some downtime,” said Mitton, who graduated from the University of Windsor with honours in biology in 2018. “Nearing the fifth or sixth day everything took that turn, so I ended up staying here since early March. It has been a huge change being away from the training centre, my coach and that daily training environment. The first few months were a huge challenge especially in Nova Scotia, just trying to find somewhere to throw.”
From training centre to garage
Mitton was accustomed to training at Toronto’s indoor track and field centre with all the amenities but that was no longer an option. Factor in Nova Scotia weather in March and April and it’s not exactly an optimal training opportunity.
In stepped her father, who made an indoor throwing facility for her.
“Thank God for my dad, he was such a trooper through this,” said Mitton. “He turned my garage into a little throwing sanctuary. He put up fishing nets, tarps and hung them from the ceiling. He built me a toe board, he trusted me not to hit anything.
“I threw indoors for about two months and then he made me an outdoor circle now that the weather is nice.
“In the garage, the atmosphere was a little less, you were still getting over the disappointment of the Olympics and on top of that, I was throwing into a net. But it ended up being a blessing in disguise. In those two months, I made some pretty good technical advancements because that is all I could really focus on.”
Through the shutdown, Mitton learned a lot about herself. Gone was the support staff that helped her become one of the world’s top shot putters. To maintain that level, it was going to be on her.
It was New Zealand again. Clear her mind and trust the process.
“You get used to the high-performance environment and you have this team behind you that handles so much of your daily life. The massage, coach, managers, the weight room coach, everyone has their role in your success.
“And then COVID happens and you are home by yourself and you are now your own technical coach, own IST team (integrated support team), own manager, your own everything even though they were still there in spirit and through the phone. I’ve learned so much about how to stay motivated, how to stay positive, little things like that are just going to give you an edge when you train in the future.
“It took time to adapt as with everyone, but now I feel comfortable and everything is set up well. All those positives are really coming together. I’ve noticed personals best in the weight room and throwing has been going really well despite all of the challenges.”
Olympics still beckon
While she misses her Toronto teammates and roommates dearly, Mitton is grateful for the family time.
“You don’t realize how much you miss all of the little things, being able to be home for my birthday. Seeing your mom and dad every day just gives that life balance that I think you miss when you live away.”
But a return to Toronto is not far off for Mitton. The Toronto Track and Field Centre is expected to open July 6.
“Things are definitely looking hopeful in terms of returning and getting back to our full normal, although it will be a little different.”
And ultimately, Mitton realized her Olympic dream wasn’t over. The Tokyo Games were rescheduled for July 23-Aug. 8, 2021. This is time Mitton will use to perfect the spin technique she adopted not all that long ago.
“The disappointment was like, ‘I have to wait another year to say that I am an Olympian.’ But what it does do, because I am so young, it’s giving me one extra year to work on technique. I’m excited because I have yet another year to hone in on all of the things I have been working on.
“I will be able to be stronger in my Olympic debut.”