Coronavirus spread forces Olympic athletes, hopefuls to adjust, point to 2021

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Nick Gwiazdowski is a world-class wrestler with no one to wrestle.

Ashley Twichell is a world-class swimmer without a pool, and Sam Mewis a world-class soccer player with nowhere to play.

Like many athletes with eyes on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, their lives were tightly regimented and their daily routines set. Schedules were planned, all leading up to the competition on the world’s biggest stage this year.

And then the world, and their worlds, were turned upside down.

The global spread of the coronavirus, the pandemic, has led to the cancellation of some longstanding sports championships in 2020 — Wimbledon in tennis, NCAA basketball. The Olympic Games were not canceled but postponed a year, allowing athletes such as Gwiazdowski, Twichell, Mewis and others the chance to plan anew, to keep their Olympic hopes intact.

“To be a year older, wiser, better,” Gwiazdowski said.

But training, competition? That must wait. That has changed, and quickly.

Gwiazdowski, a former two-time NCAA champion at N.C. State, was set to leave recently for the USA Olympic Wrestling Trials, which were scheduled Saturday and Sunday at State College, Pa. A gold medalist at 125 kilograms at the Pan Am Olympic Qualifier in March, he was looking to secure his spot on the U.S. team for Tokyo.

He’s now limited to exercising in his garage in Raleigh, working out on an Airdyne bike and with resistance bands, trying to stay as active as possible. He was lifting weights at the home of an assistant Wolfpack wrestling coach but has since stopped. Social distancing, staying at home.

“It’s definitely different but there’s been a lot of different things that we’ve never seen happen before these last three or so weeks,” Gwiazdowski said Wednesday in an interview. “It’s definitely different but what can you do? You have to take what comes, adjust and keep moving.

“You have to stay sharp, think about what’s important and what can make you better, even though you can’t always do them. Focus on the positives and visualize those things.”

Twichell, a former Duke freestyle swimmer, qualified for the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games in the 10-kilometer open water swim. After trying to qualify three times for the Olympics — in 2008, 2012 and 2016 — she finally earned her spot in July 2019 at the FINA World Championship in Yeosu, South Korea. At 30, she was set to be the oldest “rookie” on the team.

“It’s been a long journey,” she said. “And now it will be one more year longer than I expected.”

Twichell left March 8 for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a team camp that was to last three weeks. On March 17, she received a text that the center was being closed in response to a directive from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis that gyms and fitness centers would be among the places that would be shuttered to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

Also among the hundreds of athletes at Colorado Springs who suddenly had nowhere to train was Lucas Kozeniesky, an N.C. State graduate who qualified for the U.S. Olympic air rifle team by winning the February trials in Colorado Springs. Kozeniesky, 24, was on the U.S. team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I think when COVID-19 started really impacting the East Asia countries and then when it spread to Europe, I think that’s when the dialogue of a lot of American athletes started changing to, ‘Oh, this is something really serious,’ ” Kozeniesky said in an interview recently. “By early March we thought there was a chance of the Games being postponed. Over time, we expected it more and more.

“It’s all for the better, for public health. I was able to get my gear before they shut down the center, but as far as live-fire my rifle I’m not able to do that.”

With the center closed, Twichell soon was boarding a flight, returning to her Apex home, wondering if there would be an Olympics this year.

“That first week we were out there was when the NBA suspended its season (March 11),” she said in an interview. “Then the other sports started to follow suit. At that point I knew there as a real possibility. USA Swimming was one of the first to request that the USOC advocate for a postponement. At that point I definitely saw it coming.

“I was definitely and still am in full support of the decision for our global community’s health and safety. And there are so many athletes who can’t train right now. A majority haven’t had their qualifiers. That wouldn’t have been fair, either.”

Twichell’s husband, Derek Wall, owns Triangle Aquatics in Cary and she often would train at the Triangle Aquatic Center. Restrictions made by Wake County and then Gov. Roy Cooper have closed fitness centers, gyms and pools.

Had there been no pandemic, Twichell said she would have been in “pretty intense training” to prepare for a swim meet in California this month. That was the plan. Instead, she takes long walks or jogs with her husband and gets in a few swims at Jordan Lake.

“There’s definitely a feel of disappointment because I was really looking forward to this summer and being able to race at the Olympics,” she said. “Obviously it’s something out of my control, so I try to look at the positives. I kind of look at it as an extra year of swimming I didn’t know I was going to get. I feel I’m getting better and stronger every year, hopefully.”

Gwiazdowski, the NCAA champion at 285 pounds for the Pack in 2014 and 2015, has taken the same approach. He was at the Pan Am Olympic Qualifier in Ottawa, Canada, in early March, his focus on the competition, when news about the virus became more serious, more ominous. He wrestled and won.

“I felt good,” he said. “I felt like things were clicking and my training was going well. Everything was on track with my strength and conditioning, my wrestling. My coaches had me prepared.”

And then the International Olympic Committee, in conjunction with Japan, announced March 24 that the Summer Olympics had been postponed until 2021. On Monday, it was announced the Games would begin July 23, 2021, giving the athletes a new target date.

“You just have to pivot your training,” said Kozeniesky, who earned All-America honors in 2016 on the NCSU air rifle team. “Especially with them setting the dates for next year, it really helps in setting a plan. It’s all good.”

For former UNC pole vaulter Scott Houston, the one-year postponement should help. Houston, an assistant track and field coach at High Point University, underwent surgery for a sports hernia suffered in December and the Rock Ridge native had follow-up surgery early last month.

“It would have been a tight window for me,” he said. “I would have had about six weeks to be fully ready for the (U.S.) Trials.”

A member of the North Carolina Courage, the 2019 NWSL champions, Mewis competed for the U.S. national soccer team in winning the gold medal at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. That was a thrill but there was another goal: an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.

Everything now has been pushed back a year with the postponement, but Mewis said when the Olympics are held, hopefully in packed stadiums and arenas, it will make for a huge celebration, and not just for the winners.

“People’s reaction to the news was one of now it’s official and now we can start thinking about how to safely get through this time and prepare for the Olympics when it is safe,” Mewis said.

“It’d be cool to have this big moment of togetherness after we’ve experienced something that’s been so isolating. All of sport right now is coming second to the health and safety of the world.”


— Kate Murphy contributed to this story


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