With Olympics on hold, US athletes embrace being ‘really bad’ at quarantine hobbies

Rai Benjamin is one of the fastest men in the world, a 400-meter specialist who is favored to win one medal – if not two – at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

He's also fascinated by the guitar. So as the coronavirus pandemic stretched on, and he found himself losing interest in other hobbies like yoga and video games, he started thinking: Why not try something completely new? Why not learn how to play the guitar? 

"It's like, why not add another skill to my list of skills?" he said.

Benjamin is not alone. With the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics postponed to 2021, and international competitions on hold, some of the world's top athletes are weathering the pandemic with the help of new hobbies, or the pursuit of new skills. They're picking up photography or gardening. They're learning to play piano, or speak Spanish, or resod a lawn. One is studying to become a certified public accountant. Another is taking online illustration classes.

Rai Benjamin of the United States anchors the team to the gold medal in the men's 4×400 meter relay final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) (Photo: Petr David Josek, AP)

"Sometimes we can get so immersed in our sports," said Rachael Adams, an Olympic volleyball player. "We come home and we think about it. We go to bed and we think about it. We wake up and we think about it. We don’t have those moments to balance that out with something else."

Now, those athletes – whose lives typically revolve around their training regimens – feel like they finally have time to find joy in other things. And after spending thousands of hours working to master the minutiae of their sports, they're now newbies, embracing what it feels like to be really bad at something new. 

That's certainly the case for Benjamin. The 22-year-old recently started out on his musical quest by borrowing an acoustic guitar from a friend, and finding a set of daily tutorial videos on YouTube. His goal is to practice and learn as much as he can in the next two months. Ideally, he'd like to be able to play an acoustic version of "Wonderwall" by Oasis.

"It's a little bit tricky," Benjamin said. "There are definitely mess-ups here and there — but it’s not impossible, I’ll say that."

USA TODAY Sports spoke with four other Olympic and Paralympic athletes about the hobbies and skills they've picked up while social distancing.

Ruth Winder: Baking and biking

The 2016 Olympic silver medalist has always been a bit of a baker.

As one of six kids, Winder said it seemed like her mother was always baking birthday cakes, and she was often in the kitchen to help.

Olympic cyclist Ruth Winder takes a photo while riding delivering baked goods via bicycle in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo: Courtesy of Ruth Winder)

When she embarked on a professional cycling career, however, it meant spending about half of the year on the road – away from friends, family and, notably, her own oven.

So perhaps it's no surprise that when Winder began social distancing at her home in Boulder, Colorado earlier this spring, she turned to baking. Then she shared some of her creations with friends. Then pictures of those dishes started making their way to Instagram, and that's where Winder's longtime hobby took on a new twist.

"It started with these sourdough babkas that I was making," said Winder, 26. "I was like, 'Cool, why don’t I just make them for a couple people and I can just ride them around town and drop them off at people’s houses?' … I think it ended up being 12 babkas or something that I needed to make."

Twelve soon became 15, and 15 became 20. Now, the reigning road racing national champion is baking enough sweet or savory goods each week for 30 people, and delivering them around Boulder.

Winder said the group gives her some money to cover the cost of ingredients, occasionally leaving enough for her to buy a cup of coffee while making weekly deliveries, which take about four hours. She whips up a different dish each week, from sourdough pretzels and miniature blueberry and ricotta pies to British scones, which are akin to the American biscuit. (Winder was born in Yorkshire, Great Britain before moving to California as a child.)

"I’ve done custard creams, which are these custard-filled biscuits. Basically just butter and sugar in the middle. Those were really popular," Winder said. "And then last week I made a Greek-yogurt-based raspberry lemon cake. So I’ve just been trying to mix it up."

Winder admitted that she probably won't be able to expand her weekly bake-and-bike project. She's discovered the limitations that come with only having one oven, and estimated that she's used up about two-thirds of a 50-pound bag of flour this month alone.

It's all been worth it, though. Winder said her weekly baking and deliveries have given her some clear goals at a time when she's otherwise felt a bit lost, in the absence of competitions. And it's given her an excuse to have face-to-face interactions with friends, even if that typically means leaving sourdough babkas at their doorstep and conversing from the end of the sidewalk.

"It’s like their weekly treat," Winder said. "And it’s fun for me, too."

Richard Torrez Jr.: A boxer takes to the backyard

Torrez said his new hobby actually began as a Mother's Day present. The super heavyweight boxer and Tokyo hopeful wanted to spruce up his parents' yard in Tulare, California as a gift, so he connected with a friend whose uncle works in landscaping and asked if he could tag along on some jobs for a week.

"I found out how to turf, how to sod, how to mulch a yard," Torrez said.

Then the 20-year-old took what he learned and used it to help his parents, resodding their backyard – which involves clearing the area of vegetation, tilling the soil and laying down new sod – as well as mulching the front lawn.

Olympic boxing hopeful Richard Torrez Jr. does landscaping work in Tulare, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Torrez Jr.)

Other small jobs have followed in the weeks since, Torrez said, mostly mulching yards for neighbors. Like Winder, he said he's not trying to make a profit. Just enough to cover the cost of the mulch and other supplies. He said each yard typically takes a day or two to complete. 

"And then to keep busy during the landscaping, I’ll listen to 'The Republic' by Plato," Torrez added. "I’m having to go through it four or five times to try to understand the message behind it. But it’s really interesting."

After a day of landscaping, Torrez said he'll move on to his usual training for boxing in the later afternoon or evening. He'll run three to five miles, then either break apart concrete with a sledgehammer, shovel dirt or work on technique using a punching bag behind his house. His father, Richard Sr., is his coach.

"He’s really into all the old-school training, especially now with all the gyms closed," the younger Torrez explained. "He’ll take me out to an old ditch, and I’ll just start shoveling. And then I’ll put the dirt back."

Torrez, who counts playing the guitar and performing magic tricks among his other hobbies, said he's also been reading books about training and raising Golden Retrievers, with hopes of soon getting a dog.

As for the landscaping, he admitted it'll probably be a "quarantine-and-done" type of activity.

"I give a lot of credit to guys that do this for a living. I don’t know if I could," Torrez said. "It’s (been) helpful in a way – but after quarantine, I’m pretty sure I’m just going to stick to boxing."

Rachael Adams: Illustrating the day away

Some new skills or hobbies are simply a way to pass the time. But for Adams, who helped the U.S. indoor volleyball team win bronze at the 2016 Olympics, the decision to take online classes for the graphic program Adobe Illustrator was motivated by questions she began to ask herself about what she wants to do after volleyball.

"What else am I passionate about?" she wondered. "What else do I kind of want to fill my time with, that brings me joy again?"

Adams majored in advertising at the University of Texas, with the goal of becoming an art director. She said she's always had an interest in design – the type of person who will see a pamphlet and get excited about the font or color scheme. 

USA middle blocker Rachael Adams (5) celebrates against the Netherlands in the women's volleyball bronze medal match. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Sports)

But when Adams started dedicating more of her time to volleyball, she felt like she put a pause on her creative side. Two months of social distancing have given her the opportunity to tap back into that, largely by sketching illustrations on an iPad through an app called Procreate, then uploading them to Adobe Illustrator, which allows her to add color, texture and dimension to her work.

"I've thought about maybe illustrating a children’s book one day," Adams said. "So I thought now would be a good time to learn what it takes to be an illustrator and just see if I enjoy it."

Adams estimates that she spends about three hours per week taking online classes for Illustrator or otherwise studying the software, learning new features and shortcuts. She hasn't completed any major projects yet. A recent class, for example, prompted her to sketch a detailed drawings of plants and books atop a desk.

Adams, 29, said she isn't sure whether all of this will lead to a second career. Maybe she'll just wind up doing occasional projects, like designing party invitations for a friend. But she's been grateful for the chance to be able to spend some free time on an activity that requires so much focus.

"Normally when I have free time, I want to nap. Or I’m eating. Or I’m recovering from our workouts and our difficult training," Adams said. "(This) is kind of the last thing I want to give my attention to. Now, I can."

Hailey Danz: A paratriathlete tries piano

Danz said her dorm building at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado has apartments on three floors. The fourth floor has a piano and a drum set, for no apparent reason.

A paratriathlete who won silver at the 2016 Paralympics, Danz is one of the few athletes who stuck around at the facility when the pandemic hit. And as the days turned into weeks, she started to feel like she was in stuck in a rut. She wanted to find a way to work her brain. She remembered that random piano on the fourth floor.

Well, she thought, why not?

A piano located on the the fourth floor of the William E. Simon Athlete Residence Hall at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Paralympic triathlete Hailey Danz has been teaching herself to play the instrument. (Photo: Courtesy of Hailey Danz)

"I have zero intention of making this my new craft and really trying to master it," said Danz, 29. "I’d be happy if I could learn how to play a couple of songs. Just enough to entertain people at a party, if those ever happen again."

Danz was diagnosed with bone cancer in her left leg at 12 and made the decision to amputate the leg at 14. In the years since, she's become one of the world's top paratriathletes, thriving in an endurance sport that doesn't require tons of hand-eye coordination. She figures that's why she's having so much trouble separating her right hand from her left on the piano keys.

Danz said she is learning basic scales and chords from YouTube videos and can do them with one hand just fine. The same chord with both hands? Easy.

"Trying to play two different things is kind of where I’m stuck right now," she said. "But I kind of feel like it’s a cool way to wire the brain to do something totally different."

Danz said she took some piano lessons as a child but has long since forgotten them. Her goal this time is to be the person who can play three songs at a party and leave everyone in attendance thinking she's a pro. She'd like "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen to be one of them. Then maybe a Christmas song.

"I just feel like in general, when you’re an adult and you’re going about your everyday life, there are very few opportunities to be a novice at something – to just take on something new, and be really bad at it," Danz said. "I just kind of feel like now’s a really good time to do that. And I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned in taking something like that on."

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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