The USA Swim Team held an open training session in the McAuley Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech before they head to Rio for the Olympics. Atlanta, GA. July 30th, 2016. (Photo/Shubham Kadam)

Georgia’s director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports Katrin Koch is as determined as ever to shape world-class Bulldog athletes. The one year postponement of the Tokyo Summer Games hasn’t changed her dedication to training Olympic hopefuls, especially now that voluntary summer workouts have brought some of her trainees back to Athens.

Stringent safety protocols, including wearing a mask when she trains, are reminders of how Koch and her staff’s jobs have pivoted in the wake of COVID-19. But limitations or not, there’s work to do before the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials scheduled for next June. 

The Red & Black’s sports editor William Newlin spoke on the phone with Koch, who was named a master of strength and conditioning this May by a national organization of coaches, to discuss her work at Georgia, spring setbacks and the difficulty of enforcing coronavirus safety outside of the weight room. 

William Newlin: Who do you train, and what did Georgia’s Olympic field look like this year?

Katrin Koch: So, we have everybody but football. The two big sports that everybody cares about every four years are swimming and track and field ... that's probably where we've had the best showing as a university. Some already had their Olympic cuts and I think we had a couple of swimmers with a legit chance this year. I think they'll be just as legit this coming year. And track also, quite a few people already had their standard, and they also had the Olympic qualifying standard, which is a little different in track and field. So, we certainly had some kids here that had a shot for [Tokyo].

Newlin: In the time between season cancellations and the Olympic postponement, how did you prepare athletes for an uncertain spring and summer?

Koch: My mindset was "I will help you however I can with whatever means you find [at home]”, but it got so restrictive so quick, it was really hard. Swimming was one of the first sports that had very little access to their equipment. I mean, I know people who tethered themselves to tiny sides of pools and swam. People found a way to get in the water, but it was really hard for about four weeks when people didn’t know, and you’re just like “I will try to make it work somehow, somewhere, some shape.” And then when the decision [to postpone] came, I think everybody was like “Thank God you have the best for humankind in mind and not just the Olympics.”

Newlin: Do you think NCAA athletes will have an advantage over professionals with another year of guided training?

Koch: No, I think this coming year will be the year of the person that works the hardest and the smartest. That’s been my message to all our athletes. If you stay consistent, if you do a little a lot during this time [as] other people might sit back and relax … hard work will prevail over talent just because I think they’ll have a bigger base. I think talent will sneak out victories every once in a while … and if you’re talented and you work hard, you’re going to be in good shape.

Newlin: When did you begin training on campus again, and what do the safety protocols look like?

Koch: We just finished our fourth day for the sports that are starting in the fall. But it’s all voluntary. It’s kind of up to the student athletes and their parents. So we have a couple teams on campus that are training, but we have [a] very rigorous cleaning schedule. [Athletes] come in at a strict time, they have a medical check that they have to do when they come in, they get their temperature taken, and then we are masked and gloved the whole time. Every [piece of] equipment gets disinfected. We’re a lot more stringent than any health club, how about that. 

Newlin: How important are safety protocols outside of training facilities, and do you think returned athletes have practiced them?

Koch: My personal opinion, having seen a fair amount of young people around town and without masks, if you want to have a safe campus, if you want to have college sports, please, mask. I cannot tell you how many times we have reiterated [to athletes] that it's important. And again, we see them for a couple hours a day. They do a really good job [in training]. What they do in their spare time, I don't know. We clean everything anyway, but we encourage the kids with spray and paper towels and sanitizing wipes and everything. If we can get kids to start learning to do it here, maybe they do a better job at home. Same thing with hand washing, sanitizing in between. We have 12 sanitizing stations in the weight room … [and] we’re trying to get them in the habit you see one, you use it. If they do that more in public, we’re going to be better off. If everybody does a good job with it, we can take care of this.

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