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3 Athletes Explain What It Takes to Prep Physically and Mentally for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo

Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls detail the hundreds of hours of work they’ve put in—mind, body, and soul—to prepare for Tokyo 2021.
By Alexis Jones
July 08, 2021

Oksana Masters 

Biathlon, cross-country skiing & road cycling 

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Credit: Jacob Lund Photography

The 31-year-old Paralympian was adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage at the age of 7. The first time she ever heard of the Paralympics was in 2008, when the director of her rowing club in Louisville, Kentucky, told her that she had the potential to win big. And that she did—earning a bronze medal in rowing at London's 2012 Paralympics, and then going on to master three other sports: biathlon, cross-country skiing, and road cycling. After placing fourth and fifth in cycling events in the 2016 Rio Games, Masters says she has "unfinished business." 

What's your workout schedule like?

It consists of a whole lot of coffee—from 5:30 in the morning until 9 o'clock at night. I'm training for both Tokyo (Summer 2021) and Beijing (Winter 2022). I'm doing morning sessions of an hour and a half to two and a half hours of cross-country skiing or biathlon. And then I ride my bike for two to four hours. As we get closer to Tokyo, I'll only do skiing workouts two to three times a week and bike twice a day. 

How do you fuel your body?

I'll start the morning with my sports drinks and toast. Then, after the first workout, my boyfriend, Aaron (who's also a Paralympic athlete), will make rice bowls. We'll add kimchi, fried egg, and bacon or turkey sausage. I'll have a protein shake with that too. And then sometimes I have to fuel while I work out. The bike rides can be four hours long. So I usually have a backpack filled with two liters of water, a sports drink, and pickle shots. 

What do you do to train your mind? 

I see a sports psychologist for sleep training, and I use the Headspace app a lot. I love the cartoons, and when I injured my elbow, they had great tips on there for recovery. 

Do you have any sort of rituals or mantras?

The morning of a race, I try to center myself with the things I can control. For me, that's the ritual of coffee making. Grinding my coffee, making it AeroPress style, and taking the time for it—not rushing it—is really important to me. Then when it's race time, at every start line when the clock is ticking down from red to green, there's a five-second countdown. And I breathe in slowly and tell myself, "I am," and then I breathe out and say, "strong." That's my biggest weakness—sometimes I'm just not confident in myself. I use those last few seconds for affirmation. 

Morgan Hurd 

Gymnast 

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Credit: Group Photos

At just 19 years old, Delaware's Morgan Hurd is already a six-time gold medalist across several national and international competitions. After Tokyo, Hurd could become a household name. 

How have you been preparing for the Olympics?

I wake up at 7 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I work out for six hours. Tuesday and Thursday, I work out four and a half hours. I've been learning new, more challenging skills. I'm hoping to add a Nabieva [a release move that catapults the gymnast over the high bar] onto my bar routine! 

Who do you see as your biggest competition?

It's hard to say just a few, especially when gymnastics is a sport where it's really about whoever has the better day. It's also subjective and up to what the judges see and what they like. 

How do you stay motivated?

I just try to remember my goals and how far I've come. I want to be able to end this year, however it ends, with no regrets. 

Are there any rituals you do before you hit the mat or beam?

Before I compete, I close my eyes and walk, putting one foot in front of the other like I'm on the beam to kind of square myself off. I don't know how I developed it, but now I just have to do it. I also have a script that I say to myself before each event, but that's top secret. 

What do you do to treat yourself?

I love boba. I'll get matcha milk tea with extra pearls every Friday as a reward for making it through my week. 

How has your relationship with the sport changed since the pandemic? 

I feel like I'm more in tune with myself. I can pinpoint what's wrong and how I should fix it because I've been able to spend so much time with myself. 

You and other potential Olympic newbies have been called the future of gymnastics. Any thoughts?

It's such a bizarre concept and one that I would have never imagined myself, but I'm nonetheless honored to take it on. 

Kendra Harrison

Track and Field 

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Credit: Getty Images

When Kendra "Keni" Harrison made it to the state championships in high school in North Carolina, she hadn't even trained for them. Track and field was just one of her many extracurricular activities, Harrison says. The 28-year-old has since set a world record for the 100 Metres Hurdles.

How often do you work out?

Six times a week. On Mondays and Fridays, I do 90-minute track workouts. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have weight-lifting sessions for an hour in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m.; then I do a hurdle workout in the afternoon, which can last two to three hours. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I do a light workout. And on Sundays, I recover.

What motivates you?

My goals, coach, and family. Having a coach that's worked with me for almost 10 years means that I trust him completely and have confidence in what he tells me I can achieve. My family supports me no matter what, in both the high and low times. And my goals—I mean, I always have something to work toward and drive me to be better.

What's the one thing you do right before a race?

I always listen to gospel or Christian music. My go-to artists are Kirk Franklin, Tasha Cobbs, Natalie Grant, and Hillsong. Then I'll write in my journal before I head to the track to get myself mentally prepared.

Who is your biggest cheerleader?

My oldest sister, Casey. When I was in high school, she encouraged me to focus solely on track and helped me find a private hurdle coach that sparked my interest in the techniques. Now, she helps me take care of all the administrative parts of life outside the track, which allows me to be 100 percent focused. She's the most informed non-athlete that I know when it comes to sports. And when you're surrounded by athletes and live the sport 24/7, it's nice to have someone outside track and field to talk to.

Any mental health practices you do consistently?

I really enjoy yoga and meditation to help me de-stress and relieve mental anxiety. I also see a sports psychologist regularly. The mental aspect of competing can be really intimidating at times.

Any goals for finishing times in Tokyo?

Any time that will get me that gold is the time that I'm going for. On that day and in that race, it's the finishing place that matters. So as long as I'm the best on that day, I will be satisfied with the time I run. 

This article originally appeared in the  July/August 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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