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With Olympic dreams delayed, one Colorado athlete declares: “This is the time when champions are made”

Sophia Herzog, a paralympic medalist, is turning to the Arkansas River with pools closed because of the coronavirus.

Paralympian swimmer Sophia Herzog trains in the Arkansas River on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Salida, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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SALIDA — Sophia Herzog dips her feet into the rushing Arkansas River and shudders. 

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“I’m an elite swimmer and this is out of my comfort zone by a long shot,” she says, laughing as she slips into the current.

The 23-year-old Paralympic silver medalist didn’t just lose her goal when Paralympic and Olympic officials pushed the Tokyo Games back a year to summer 2021. The Salida swimmer lost her pool as local officials closed everything in the pandemic. So she turned to the river.

Every day she slips into the swirling currents of the frigid Arkansas River and swims. It’s not really a replacement for those twice-a-day two-hour sessions in the Olympic length pool.

“It’s a huge mental thing we are fighting right now. It’s not a physical thing,” she says. “It’s definitely hard to stay motivated. This is all on me, you know. My coach is not sitting out at the pool waiting for me. I’m the one who needs to get on my bike or come down here to swim. My boyfriend has really been motivating me reminding me that this is the time when champions are made, which I totally believe.”

Paralympian swimmer Sophia Herzog trains in the Arkansas River in Salida. The Fairplay native living in Salida is training for next year’s Paralympic Games in Japan for the 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter individual medley, and 400-meter free events. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In Brazil’s Rio Paralympics in 2016, the Fairplay native with a form of dwarfism won a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. She spent a few years training in Colorado Springs before moving to Salida last fall, where she swims with the local high school team. If not for COVID-19, she would be deep into a heavy training regimen preparing for Paralympic qualifiers in June in Minneapolis. She’s aiming to swim the 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle in Tokyo next summer. 

Herzog was crushed when news of the Paralympic and Olympic postponement came down on March 24. She was among the thousands of Olympic and Paralympic athletes across the globe who were singularly focused on the Games, tailoring specific training schedules so they could peak at a precise moment this summer. Moving the finish line blew up those training arcs.

“I took the first two weeks as a mental break to reset myself,” she said, tucking into her custom-made wetsuit. “That’s pretty rare. Having time to take a mental break going into the year before the Olympics. Not many of us get a chance to do that. A lot of us are usually pretty mentally burned out by the time the Games come so it’s been nice to kind of refresh myself.” 

Paralympian swimmer Sophia Herzog puts on a cap next to the Arkansas River on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Salida, CO. The Fairplay native living in Salida is training for next year’s Paralympics Games in Japan for the 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter individual medley, and 400-meter free events. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After a couple weeks out of the water, Herzog needed to get wet. Cyclists could still pedal Runners could still run. Even divers can practice their gymnastic maneuvers. But competitive swimmers are in a tougher spot, with pools around the world closed as health officials struggle to control the spread of contagion. 

“It is a special challenge for those aquatic athletes,” said Nathan Manley, who runs the resident program for athletes at Team USA’s Colorado Springs training center, where Herzog lived last year. “I think everyone is trying to do as much as they can right now. There is an understanding that the people who are going to rise to this challenge … they will be the ones who will succeed and find ways to grow during this time.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Herzog is riding her new gravel bike — custom made for her 4-foot-tall frame — and mountain bike daily and doing some at-home workouts, but it didn’t take long for her to realize she needed to get into the water. Which can be hard in Colorado in the spring. But she found an eddy between the whitewater features in Salida’s river park and started taking daily dips. 

“I’ll sit here for 20 minutes waiting for the dogs and kayakers and everybody to clear out,” she says. “I’m kind of the low-man on the totem pole when it comes to claiming river space. Not many swimmers out here doing this.”

She’s not spending hours in the river. She digs into the moving water, honing her skulling strokes and sometimes using a kickboard to strengthen her legs. It’s a quick process. But a workout is not really the goal. 

“A huge part of swimming is having a feel for the water and you can lose that in a day,” she says. 

What is a feel for water? 

“Remember learning to ride a bike?” she says, noting the initial awkwardness of adjusting gears and keeping a bunch of different motions in sync. “Then, at some point, it’s not awkward and it’s just intuitive. That’s kind of like the feel for water.”

Paralympian swimmer Sophia Herzog lives in Salida and is training in the Arkansas River for next year’s Paralympic Games. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As Herzog climbs up the rocks and out of the rushing river, the manager of the Salida Aquatic Center pool approaches and hollers.

“I think I have good news,” he says. “We got a great plan, so I’m hopeful for mid-June.” 

“Yes!” Sophia answers, doffing her swim cap.

That would work for Herzog. She’s been swimming competitively for 12 years and getting back in the pool in mid-June would mark three months away from her training. 

She took four months off after Rio. 

“But that was by choice,” she says. “That was planned.” 

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She’s not overly stressed about missing the pool time. She’s spent countless hours of the past decade staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool, so she’s enjoying the time on her bike.

“It’s nice to exercise and not have a ton of stress about meeting different goals all the time,” she says.

If COVID-19 had not changed everything, she would be deep into training, building toward critical trials events next month and a big week in August in Japan. Right now, she doesn’t even have a date on her calendar for her next big race. 

But her eye remains solidly on Japan next summer. 

“I think a really cool thing about Tokyo is that it will be unlike any other Games, with all the hope and perseverance on display,” she says. “I think Tokyo is going to be incredibly special.”

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