Niyo: Local athletes see their Olympic dreams deferred but not denied

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Grace Luczak, a 2016 Olympian from Ann Arbor and three-time world champion in rowing, was in the middle of her morning workout Tuesday when she got the news.

After weeks of uncertainty, the 2020 Tokyo Games officially are postponed until 2021 now due to the coronavirus pandemic, an announcement made jointly by the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government.

Felice Mueller and Grace Luczak (Ann Arbor) of the United States compete in the women's rowing pair semifinal during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But for Luczak and her teammate, Brooke Mooney, the immediate response was about what you’d expect from Olympic athletes, sheltering in place in a makeshift gym they’d created with borrowed equipment in the garage of a host family’s home near the U.S. Olympic training center in Princeton, New Jersey.

“We finished the workout,” Luczak said, laughing.

Yet like most Olympic hopefuls, they’re laughing to keep from crying right now, as years of training and untold sacrifices now must add another if they’re going to reach their ultimate goal.

“Obviously, it’s a disappointment that we’re not gonna be able to compete this summer,” said Emily Regan, a former Michigan State All-American who was part of U.S. rowing’s gold medal-winning women’s eight at the 2016 Rio Olympics and appeared to be a lock for Tokyo. “But I think everyone who was trying to make an Olympic team completely understands that some things are bigger than sport. And what’s happening in the world right now and the health and safety of the global community is so much more important.”

Also important, though, is that the athletes finally have an answer, with the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics exactly four months away.

“Because a lot of athletes, we were just kind of in limbo,” said Ypsilanti’s Cindy Ofili, a former NCAA track champion at Michigan who competed for Great Britain in Rio in 2016, finishing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles. “So it’s nice to have that clarity and just know where we go from here. … We don’t have to put ourselves at risk with everything going on right now.

“It’s better to be safe than not. And I think it’s good that we’re playing it smart, (waiting) for next year.”

The wait was wearing on athletes, to be sure. Ofili trains with her sister, Tiffany, a fellow hurdler, and Tiffany’s husband, Jeff Porter, who serves as their coach now after all three competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But they’ve been forced to improvise in recent weeks, as Michigan's indoor track facility closed and other area training options followed suit. Tiffany posted a video on her Instagram account Tuesday morning showing her weight training in her basement at home with her 8-month-old daughter looking on.

Thousands of would-be Olympians can share similar stories, and many did in recent weeks, ratcheting up the pressure on national federations and other stakeholders to force the IOC to make an expensive — but necessary — call on Tokyo 2020.

“We had to focus on our training and try to stay positive,” Luczak said. “But I think we trusted in the leaders making decisions to make the call at the right time.”

In a letter to Team USA athletes Tuesday, Sarah Hirshland, chief executive officer for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, shared her disappointment over the postponement while acknowledging plenty of details — including official new dates — will need to be figured out to “ensure the reimagined Games live up to the original promise of Tokyo 2020.”

Michigan State's Emily Regan (lower left) helped the U.S. win gold in the women's rowing eight during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do,” Hirshland wrote. “Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.

“I wish I had answers to every question out there, but the reality is this decision is unprecedented, and therefore, presents an entirely new process — for you, for the organizers, for the NGBs and for the USOPC. Please know we are committed to working with you in the coming days, weeks, and months to address them together.”

There were 76 U.S. athletes already qualified for Tokyo, including weightlifter Kate Nye, a Rochester Adams grad who lives in Berkley and is coming off a record-smashing performance at last fall’s world championships. Allen Park native Amanda Chidester, a former Michigan All-American in softball, also had her ticket punched with Team USA as that sport returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008. Softball isn’t part of the 2024 Olympic sports program, either, so Tokyo represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Chidester, who turns 30 next month.

But that’s true for most, as history shows nearly three-fourths of Olympians compete in just one Games. And even a one-year delay adds to the uncertainty for many as they try to balance a lifelong dream with the physical and mental toll of training, not to mention the financial hardships that often come with it.

The Olympics' postponement might help Britain's Cindy Ofili of Ypsilanti, who is trying to come back from a ruptured Achilles from 2017.

In Cindy Ofili’s case, the extra time admittedly might end up helping, as the 25-year-old finds her stride after suffering a ruptured Achilles in June 2017. For her sister, Tiffany, who is 32, next year will mark a decade since she turned pro and eight years since she won a bronze medal at the world championships. Canton’s Allison Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist making a comeback bid for her fourth Games, will have a decision to make as well, having put finishing her master’s degree in social work at Arizona State on hold for the last year.

Luczak, who turns 31 in May, took time away from her sport after a fourth-place finish with U-M alum Felice Mueller in the women’s pair event in Rio. She landed a marketing job with Ernst & Young in New York City and later worked with a Boston-based startup called Hydrow. Luczak returned to full-time training with the U.S. national team last winter, though, setting her sights set on qualifying for a second Olympics and “getting up on the medal stand.”

Now that vision requires a different lens.

“My analogy is it’s like being a college senior, and a couple months before graduation you’re told you can’t graduate and you have to do your senior year all over again,” said Luczak, an Ann Arbor Pioneer grad who went on to row at Stanford. “So you have to pay for another year of tuition, you have to retake all your classes, and at the end of the year you have you have the same GPA that you did the year before or you can’t graduate and get a job.”

The reality is training for the Olympics amounts to a full-time job that doesn’t pay well, or at all, in some cases. And while Regan, who turns 32 in June, says she has no doubts about continuing for another year, she admits the financial calculation is “something I haven’t started thinking about yet.”

“I have an incredibly amazing support system around me — my coaches, my teammates, but especially my family,” she said, her voice catching with emotion. “It’s not gonna be easy for a lot of athletes over the next year. But that’s not something I’ve really ventured into thinking about yet, because it has just been so much change so quickly.”

They do have time now, and a chance to gather their thoughts, though listening to Luczak on the phone Tuesday, it's easy to hear the determination.

"I think there’s still a very strong fire in the belly," she said,

And as she talked about the Olympics as "a beacon of hope" and an event that "exemplifies the strength of the human spirit," she also mentioned the motto attached to the movement.

"Faster, higher, stronger," Luczak said. "I think we can add a word. Maybe it’ll be healthier now, too."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo