Just weeks before the Tokyo Olympics, the greatest female athlete you’ve probably never heard of shocked the track and field world by turning in the fifth-best heptathlon performance of all time at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
But only weeks before that, Colorado’s Annie Kunz, 28, sank to an emotional low point that had her questioning her decision to pursue her Olympic dream.
Chaotic months of pandemic-interrupted training had exacted a toll. Her long jump and javelin events weren’t clicking. She’d crashed into a hurdle and bruised a heel. She hadn’t put up an official score in the heptathlon — a two-day, seven-event medley — since the 2019 World Championships, and had been disqualified from a major event in Austria.
“Two weeks out from the trials, I was stressed out,” recalled Kunz, who grew up in the Denver suburbs, in a recent interview with The Colorado Sun. “I was a different Annie. I had put myself in a pressure cooker. I was trying to be too perfect. I mean, five years I had been working for this moment. I wasn’t in the right place.”
Then, as the deadline of her athletic life closed in, came an epiphany: The route to success meant getting out of her own way, mentally and emotionally — almost literally staying in her lane.
“Those failures woke me up,” Kunz said. “I decided to commit to being present, that I’m going to smile and look up at my family and enjoy this experience. It’s not ever going to be guaranteed again.
“Having that mentality, I had a peace within myself I’ve never had before. I was at peace with whatever was going to happen.”
Next month, Kunz will carry the world’s current leading heptathlon score into the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 (the organizing committee is sticking with the intended year).
The path to that performance through the Olympic trials unfolded like a storybook, as she blew through one personal-best performance after another in scorching heat.
She figures she has a global pandemic to thank for it.
The pandemic psych-out
March of 2020 became a psychological disaster for Kunz and thousands of other athletes who had meticulously timed months of training and preliminary competition to coincide with the Olympic trials, which were scheduled to happen that June.
Every four years, the top three athletes in each event at the track and field trials earn a spot on the U.S. national team, leaving hundreds of others to stay home and watch. The stakes ratchet the pressure to perform exponentially — but last summer the trials never happened.
The race to Tokyo ground to a halt months before the event’s scheduled start, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The delay had athletes buzzing, both in favor of and against the postponement.
Crested Butte native and former University of Colorado standout Emma Coburn, who won the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympic steeplechase, wrote on Instagram: “We train hard, we put our blood, sweat and tears into this. We dream for this … Our dreams are not canceled, they are just postponed. This is the right thing to do.”
Lolo Jones, a front-running American in the women’s hurdles, posted on Twitter: “FINALLY The OLYMPICS OFFICIALLY postponed for a year!! No box of Wheaties for me today. #breakfastofchampions.”
And, 5,000-meter Olympian Shelby Houlihan tweeted: “It kind of sucks. I was amped up and hungry to perform well at trials, so the news was really hard for me to hear personally. I went to the grocery store and bought some ice cream.”
Legendary Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps noted the potentially dire risks of postponement when he told NBC Sports: “I really, really hope we don’t see an increase in athlete suicide rates because of this.”
Others also expressed concern about competitors’ overall well-being.
“When all this stuff hit it was a huge blow to the athletes … I have no doubt in my mind that there were more of them who experienced severe depression, and were struggling with their mental health during COVID,” said Taylor Brown, who coaches Kunz and other athletes in mental performance through Enduromind, his Austin, Texas, company.
“Many of them had to contend with a huge question: ‘Who am I without sports and what should I do if I’m not doing what is ‘me’?”
Relatively unknown and yet to prove herself on the national stage, Kunz was asking herself that very question.
With her childhood dream extinguished indefinitely, she felt lost, staying in bed long after the sun came up before finally dragging herself outside to train for an Olympics that might not even happen.
With her usual Chula Vista Training Center near San Diego shut down, Kunz lacked a large space to practice. She needed an area to throw the shot put and javelin, room to set up a high-jump bar and hurdles. She needed a sand pit for the long jump and a place to run. But California’s strict safety mandates closed the public parks near her house.
“The playgrounds had crime scene tape around them,” Kunz said. “I was in the alley behind our town house and I set up my hurdles there on the concrete. And then it started raining. I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’”
In the first few months of the pandemic, Kunz and her boyfriend, Tyler Mahon, coped by repeating the same sort of mundane activities everyone else fell back on. They watched “Tiger King” twice. They played card games.
“I didn’t feel like I had purpose,” Kunz said. “I wasn’t making money, I didn’t have meets. Tyler was at work every day, so I was in the house by myself.”
She sat down with Mahon one night and told him she felt like she was showing signs of depression. He told her he was glad she raised the concern. In November, Kunz started seeing Brown as a “mind coach.”
Since her training partner, heptathlete Erica Bougard, elected to take time off from working out, Kunz trained alone. She didn’t miss a week, and stayed in touch with friends and family through her cellphone.
Kunz’s heptathlon coach, Kris Mack, who lived over an hour away during the COVID shutdown, remembers receiving text videos from Kunz at all times of the day asking him to assess her form.
Inspired by Kunz’s determination to stay in shape, he drove to meet her with a shot put and a javelin in the back seat of his car.
“We found random cement slabs so she could practice the shot and soccer fields for the javelin,” Mack said. “We got kicked off of one of them because of the pointy objects flying through the air.”
But Mack, who has “perseverance” tattooed on his shoulder, encouraged his athlete to remain strong as she trained remotely.
“The trials and tribulations of this past year,” he said, “have led to this moment.”
Ultimately, Kunz found her own silver lining in the global pandemic. The postponement gave her extra time to train both her body and her mind.
“For the first time I was out there with no coach by myself … running hills in front of my house which were super steep,” she said. “There was no one to complain to. I was doing it for myself to get better. Being isolated because of COVID made me realize for the first time how badly I really do want this.”
Where it all began
Kunz’s mother, Nancy, recalls letting her youngest child race against other little kids in order to give her something to do while her older siblings competed in Jefferson County track and field meets.
She recalls that first baby race, trailing her tiny daughter with arms out, ready to catch her if she fell.
“Annie turned around to me and said, ‘Get out of my lane!’” Nancy laughed. So she moved aside as she watched the little girl churn her legs across the finish line — and then petulantly throw her blue ribbon to the ground.
“I wanted the pink one!” she cried.
A track and soccer standout at Wheat Ridge High School, Kunz earned a full ride scholarship to Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, in 2012. It was one of the only schools that promised to allow her to compete in both sports.
By her fifth year in college, Kunz knew she had to dedicate her life to either soccer or track. At 22, she decided to throw it all in as a heptathlete, arguably the most challenging event in women’s track and field.
Annette Tannander Bank, a University of Colorado track star who competed in the Olympics for her home country of Sweden, says Kunz has come a long way from her eighth-place finish at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Tannander Bank helped coach Kunz all through high school.
“The first time I saw Annie, I could see her potential. I told her she could be as good as she wanted to. All she needed was time to perfect her technique and she needed to gain upper body strength,” said Tannander Bank, who remembers the first day she got Kunz on a track at the CU Fieldhouse.
“She was too weak to do even one pull-up. Now she does 14 with a metal chain and a weight around her waist.”
It’s been six years since Kunz made the commitment to relocate to Chula Vista to train full-time at the Elite Athlete Training Center. With no money coming in and no companies lining up to sponsor the soccer-player-turned-Olympic-hopeful, she learned how to apply eyelashes and did the cosmetic work for friends out of her apartment for extra cash.
While most track and field athletes compete in one or two specialties, heptathletes perform seven events over two days: They progress from hurdles to shot put and then high jump, with the 200-meter race closing out the first day. The second day sees the long jump, javelin and, the true backbreaker final event — the 800 meters, or half mile, which is two laps around a track.
Each event earns points for the competitor, and the athlete who compiles the most points once the half mile is complete wins. The winner of the heptathlon, like the winner of the men’s decathlon, traditionally assumes the mantle of world’s greatest athlete.
Think Caitlyn Jenner, who, as Bruce Jenner, famously won the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal games for the U.S.; and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, arguably the greatest female athlete, who won two golds and a silver in three Olympics for the U.S. before she retired in 1996.
Joyner-Kersee, 59, had her eye on Kunz at the recent Olympic trials as she watched each of the seven events from a box high above the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
Despite the fact that Kunz was not considered a guarantee to make the Olympics, Joyner-Kersee’s brother, renowned track coach Al Joyner, had a feeling the tall, unheralded Coloradan had something special.
“I saw myself in Annie. I saw it huge in her humble eyes,” Joyner told The Sun. “She had the talent. She just hadn’t figured out how to turn on the switch.”
Though she never talked with Kunz face-to-face, Joyner-Kersee had a conversation with Al about her. “She said that if Annie could score 6,000 points, she would have a chance to make the Olympics,” Joyner said. “I told my sister, when Annie decides to finally get serious about track, everyone’s in trouble.”
A bump in the road
Just weeks before the trials, Kunz suffered a painful wake-up call when she was disqualified for foot faults in the long jump during an international meet in Gotzis, Austria, specifically targeted for heptathletes and decathletes.
After a year of no competition, the meet was her last chance to rack up an official heptathlon score before going into the U.S. trials — and she blew it. Her family, who had made the trip, watched her face on the big screen as she looked, shell shocked, at the “DQ” after her name on the leaderboard. Heading into the Olympic trials, the biggest meet of her life, she felt like a ghost.
“I’m not going to lie. It was a long flight home,” Kunz recalled.
Joyner recalls that after Kunz returned home, she was so dejected over her non-score, she couldn’t look at him.
“When I saw her at the track, she started crying,” Joyner said. “She reminds me so much of my sister. She’s so nice to everyone, but when she gets on the track, she has the eye of the tiger. I told her ‘Annie, keep doing what you’re doing.’ The switch was there. It just needed to be turned on.”
As if answering Joyner’s earlier prediction, Kunz showed how serious she was about track at the Olympic trials by breaking Joyner-Kersee’s heptathlon shot put record on the way to a final score of 6,703 points: the fifth-best heptathlon of all time.
The shot put wasn’t the only record broken that late-June day in Oregon. Temperatures hovering around 108 degrees were so brutal that athletes took cover under tents and splashed water on themselves between races. One heptathlete collapsed, and left the field in a wheelchair. The 800-meter heptathlon run was postponed six hours.
At 9:30 p.m., Kunz and more than a dozen other heptathletes emerged from their heat-induced hibernation and toed the starting line.
The race would decide which three women would go to Japan, and Kunz’s point total stood in second place. The row of women shook out their arms and legs in anticipation before the starting gun. And then Kunz ran the half mile of her life, garnering enough points to clinch first place.
One of the first people to congratulate her was Al Joyner.
“He was laughing at me,” Kunz recalled. “He was like ‘I told you!’”
Breathless from the race and astounded at seeing her name first on the scoreboard, Kunz told the NBC announcer: “I never in a million years thought I could score what I scored tonight. Hard work pays off. It really does.”
A quiet competition
Tokyo 2020 figures to be very quiet.
On Thursday, following a fourth coronavirus state of emergency, Olympic organizers announced that for the first time in the history of the Games, there will be no spectators.
“Unfortunately it seems to be the theme of meets during the pandemic, but the safety of the fans and the athletes needs to be a priority,” Mack, Kunz’s coach, said as he was finishing up a training session. “This experience will not be new, so I think we can still perform at the highest level. Plus, millions of people will still be watching online and on TV.”
It’s no surprise that the latest Kyodo News poll showed that 86% of people in Japan are worried that the Olympic Games are going to create a coronavirus surge.
The most recent World Health Organization figures show that only 8% of Japanese people have been vaccinated, compared to 45% for the U.S. The Delta variant of the coronavirus accounts for 30% of new cases, and last Wednesday, Tokyo reported 920 new cases in one day, the highest daily count since May.
On the other hand, infections and deaths there due to the virus are down, partly because the Japanese are used to wearing masks. It’s a practice that goes all the way back to 1918 when the first wave of the Spanish flu first hit Japan, brought in by a group of Sumo wrestlers who had been visiting Taiwan.
Japan has also stuck with strict regulations and quarantines regarding foreigners entering the country.
Last March, organizers banned athletes’ families from entering Japan. So, after traveling to every one of their daughter’s meets on faraway tracks from Saudi Arabia to all parts of Europe, Nancy and Terry Kunz won’t be waving the American flag in Tokyo.
“In a year and a half of strange things, the strangest part is that we can’t go,” Terry Kunz said.
Recently, after new mothers complained openly about the strict regulations, organizers announced that there is one exception to the no-family rule: nursing babies may accompany their mothers. Ten female athletes from the United States, including sprint star Allyson Felix, are moms, but not all of those children are breastfeeding.
Team USA and NBC, which owns broadcast rights, have come up with an alternative for the competitors’ family and friends prohibited from the Games. The Universal Orlando Resort has been chosen as a central spot for them to watch the Olympic Games. Each athlete is allowed two people eligible to receive free “airfare, hotel, theme park tickets and evening Olympic viewing parties.”
Kunz’s family got the email, but they may stay in Colorado to cheer her on from home, where there’s a comfortable couch nearby. Some heptathlon events start in the middle of the night, Colorado time, since Tokyo is 15 hours ahead.
Even without family nearby, Kunz has already created ways to stay inspired. At the trials, she scribbled a Bible verse on the inside of her left wrist in honor of an aunt who died in January. A silver drawing of her French bulldog, Auggie, adorns her long jump shoes.
“I told Annie there’s a lot of things that can get in your head,” said Terry Kunz, who was a CU football standout at fullback and played in the Super Bowl for the Raiders before a career-ending knee injury. “You have to learn how to manage it, and she will. She’s been doing this for a while. Annie took it by the horns. The club she’s in is a lot smaller than mine.”
Brown and Kunz focused on her mental approach after the disastrous experience in Gotzis, aiming for Kunz to be “completely present” for the trials last month in Oregon. The answer, Brown figured, was for his client to back off of the need to win.
“We work to reduce the attachment to expectations,” he said. “Rigid expectations bring anxiety. If we perform in the present moment, then the results take care of themselves.”
Kunz entered the U.S. Olympic trials under the radar. Because of Gotzis, she had no mark in the heptathlon to show for the year. She had zero interest from potential sponsors, although most of the other heptathletes had shoe contracts or were supported by their colleges.
At 28 years old, Kunz was out of college, at the mercy of the life-altering choice she made to pursue an Olympic dream that seemed out of reach — until Brown advised her to turn her fear of failure into the joy of the accomplishment, no matter what happens.
“Life in general is an incredibly uncertain and uncontrollable thing in many ways,” Brown said.
Kunz is now not only the U.S heptathlon champion, she is going into the Olympics with the highest current score in the world. The little kid who ran for a pink ribbon is now going for gold.
“Everyone has had such a hard year,” she said. “COVID wasn’t easy for anyone. It’s such an exciting time to bring people together to celebrate life. I’m excited I get to represent the U.S. and get to be a part of that.”
Carol McKinley has known Annie Kunz’s parents since college.