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Sports >  Outdoors

For an Olympic canoeist, training alone on the water is its own kind of social distancing

The view from Casey Eichfeld's canoe during a recent training session. Photo courtesy of Casey Eichfeld (Casey Eichfeld / Courtesy photo)
The view from Casey Eichfeld's canoe during a recent training session. Photo courtesy of Casey Eichfeld (Casey Eichfeld / Courtesy photo)
By Dave Sheinin The Washington Post

His boat, an 11 1/2-foot Vajda C1 MM racing canoe, stays strapped to the roof of his Volkswagen at all times, and most days Casey Eichfeld still manages to get out on the water.

Social distancing is no issue for an Olympic canoeist during training. In those moments of waterborne solitude, familiar after 16 years as an international competitor, he almost can trick himself into thinking everything is still normal.

It’s the other 20-some hours each day that remind him how abnormal things really are.

Right about now, Eichfeld, a 30-year-old slalom canoeist and three-time Olympian, should be in Rio de Janeiro for the Pan-American Championships – the start of what was to have been a four-month burst of competition, with only a few scattered weeks at home, culminating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Instead, the sport, like most of the rest of the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the novel coronavirus pandemic – with some competitions, such as the Pan-Am Championships, canceled outright and others, such as the Olympics, postponed.

Instead of being away from his Huntersville, North Carolina, home for most of the next four months – not to mention his wife, Sarah Anderson, and their golden retriever and two cats – he is more or less stuck there, with North Carolina, like most states, under a stay-home order. An exception for “outdoor activity” gives Eichfeld the leeway to continue training.

“I’m starting to adjust better to being home,” Eichfeld, an Olympian in 2008, 2012 and 2016, said in a telephone interview. “In the beginning I was having some trouble. There’s this not exactly adrenaline but general excitement to knowing you’re going to be going to all these places, doing all these things. And all of a sudden, the brakes hit, and you’re thrust forward into your seat belt, like you’ve just come up on an accident up ahead. And it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to be here a while.’ ”

More so than at any other time he can remember, Eichfeld’s life has settled into a routine, a sort of solitude bordering on monotony. Anderson, the manager of a veterinary hospital, is considered an essential employee and has been working 50-hour weeks.

Most days, Eichfeld pulls a four-hour shift at the String Bean, a Southern bistro in nearby Belmont, North Carolina, where he works when he isn’t competing and which has carved out a niche during the pandemic as a to-go butcher shop, beer-and-wine store and market.

“One thing that makes me happy about being off the road,” he said, “is not having to play the ‘Will I have enough money to get through this trip?’ game.”

At home, Eichfeld has a gym set up in his garage, with free weights and a homemade rowing machine he rigged up with some weights, rope and a dowel rod, and he works out there most days with the garage door up, drawing strange looks from the many homebound neighbors who stroll by.

“I see the envy in some of the guys’ eyes,” he said, “and the disdain in others’. They’re walking by, looking in, like, ‘Is he allowed to do that?’ ”

Although the nearby U.S. National Whitewater Center, where Eichfeld is typically a fixture, has been closed, he still can do regular flat-water training at a lake just two minutes from his house or on the nearby Catawba River. Some days, he is joined there by a couple of fellow national members – almost like normal – with their coach, Rafal Smolen, standing on the shore.

“Out on the water,” Eichfeld said, “it’s super easy to keep some distance between us.”

Other than that? “Just a lot of extra snuggles with River,” he said. Their golden retriever came with that name when they got her from the local pound – and Eichfeld, who knows of rivers, kept it.

With the Tokyo Olympics pushed back to 2021 and little else to do besides train, Eichfeld is throwing himself into that mission, trying not to let the extra 12 months lull him into complacency. He figures he has one more Olympics in him after that – Paris in 2024 – but the time at home has made him realize something else: He kind of likes it.

“I’m getting a little peek at what it’s going to be like after I retire,” he said. “I’m still going to be training a bit – I’ve already been warned by my wife that I’ll need to maintain my fitness to a level she’s used to. The only big thing is I haven’t decided what I want to do for a career, once I have time to apply for a job.

“These last few weeks have kind of made me wonder if I can still maintain my level in the sport and still spend a little more time at home.”

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