The Iso: Monica Aksamit


The Players’ Tribune is introducing a new series called The Iso. With so many of us keeping our distance from each other in a variety of ways, we decided to ask some of our favorite athletes to share how they’ve been dealing with life in the Covid-19 world, and how they’re spending their time away from their sport.

On the morning of March 12, I woke up in Poland. I was supposed to fly to France in three days for training camp. I swiped my phone off the nightstand and read a text from my friend:

“I’m going back home, what are you doing?”

I asked, “What?”

“Well, Trump closed the borders.”

“Well, right.” I texted. “But U.S. citizens can get back. We don’t need to panic. What about the World Cup? What about training camp??”

“I’m assuming they’re canceled.”

And within the next hour, canceled.

Next, the Polish prime minister announced that Poland was closing its borders, entirely. There would be no flights out of the country, as of the evening of the following day. And, of course, all the planes going out the next day were booked, so I couldn’t even change my flight. Moments later, that didn’t matter. The next available flight, they said, wouldn’t be until March 29.

I started to panic. When will I be able to get home?

This is the part in the movie when you notice that I have a cough. I’ve had my cough for a couple of months now. It’s not corona-related, but it’s terrifying to cough around people. To get me home, USA Fencing ended up buying me a flight from Berlin, which meant that I only needed to get to Berlin from Poland, and then I could fly back to the U.S. All the trains were canceled, so the only thing left to do was to take the bus. I knew that wasn’t going to be fun. The wait at the border was apparently several hours, according to people there. (It would eventually get up to 23 hours.) But what choice did I have?

O.K., well I guess I’ll take this bus to Berlin. It seemed like I had no other option. Then, I remembered the cough. The people at the border could take this very seriously. They could lock me up in quarantine for two weeks. And even if I made it across, my flight from Berlin could still get canceled. Then I’d be stuck in Germany. I decided to check one more time to see if there were any flights going from Poland to the United States, and dear reader, there were. So, I’m like, O.K., at this point, I’m buying it.

Now I’m with my roommates, in Brooklyn. I am thinking about going back home, to be with my family in Jersey, but it just depends on how things turn out. I feel like, after traveling, I should stay away and see if I might end up having the virus. I was going to get tested, but they don’t test unless you have all of the symptoms — which I don’t. (They don’t count my cough, since I’ve had it for two months now.)

Monica Aksamit

It seems like we’ve already been through an entire year, and we’re only in March. Oh, and as of Tuesday morning, the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until 2021.

I’ve said from the beginning — ever since I became stuck in Poland — that the Games were 100% not happening this summer. It was silly to be thinking — I mean, I get where they’re coming from, it’s billions of dollars, and it does affect so many people. But listen: Only 50% of the athletes were qualified. Fencing alone had like five or six tournaments that would have needed to be rescheduled for qualification and ranking for the Olympics. Nobody even knows when they can plan anything because nobody knows when this is going to end. So it was just physically impossible.

I was thinking about retiring after the Tokyo Olympics. Obviously it’s hard to say, “I’m going to retire,” because I said I was going to retire after Rio — but that’s kind of been my thought process. But now it’s like, well, you’re definitely not retiring. You definitely have one more year.

We’re not really able to train. Some athletes are able to because they’re living at Olympic training centers. My fencing club in Manhattan is closed. There’s only so much that we can do. We’ve been doing an online training class. Yes, I can do footwork. Yes, I can do some target practice, but it’s not the same as a moving target that can change its mind. So, it just seems like a Band-Aid covering a bad wound. Had they not canceled the Summer Games, and just had us continue to train during quarantine, I was gonna get my ass handed to me, essentially.

Officials are not doing most drug testing because, obviously, nobody wants to be going into somebody’s home to administer a test. More importantly, they don’t want a situation where, if an athlete got COVID, they’re worried about saying yes or no to potentially life-saving medication because we don’t know if it might appear on drug tests for PEDs. So, right now, athletes could be doping left and right. It’s just going to be really hard to bounce back from all of this.

Now, I have more time to think. It was nice in the beginning, but now it’s kind of like I don’t know what to do anymore. I cleaned yesterday. I think I sweep three times a day, every day, because I have the time, and I notice things on the floor. It’s definitely very strange. I haven’t had this much free time since I started fencing when I was eight years old.

And to cook! I’ve always liked cooking, but I’ve never really had the time for it. And then, before bed, I hang out with my roommates or watch Netflix or read a book. I have three roommates, but one of them left and went back home, so I’m quarantined with just two of them. 

Nobody even knows when they can plan anything because nobody knows when this is going to end.

I’ve been reading this one book — it’s a Michael Phelps book — for three, four months, just because I’m always too tired to be reading, and I fall asleep immediately. So, I’ve been trying to finish that. When I was in Poland and didn’t have that book with me, I started reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. It’s pretty good, so far.

I binge watched The Stranger — that was last week. And then, these last few days, I’ve watched Altered Carbon, a sci-fi show, which I just finished last night.

I hope we learn so much from this, as a global community. I’ve actually been talking about this a lot. In Venice, the canals are clean, and fish have come out. I read that the air quality in China has improved drastically. So, I hope we take environmental issues like pollution and climate change more seriously.

We have to appreciate everything. I flew home, but I wasn’t able to hug my family, which was crazy. It’s been so weird. So, I’m definitely going to appreciate being able to do those things on a regular basis. When I walk my dog, I normally turn on music. Now, I get on a phone call with family in Poland, or with my friends, and we talk for the hour and a half, two hours that I’m out walking my dog. I hope that we kind of learn to appreciate these things, and we don’t just stop doing them and jump back into our busy lives and neglect our loved ones.