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Olympics dream postponed, but North Carolina athletes drive ahead
Focus shifts to rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Games
Published Wednesday, April 8, 2020 12:04 pm
by Parth Upadhyaya | Media Hub

Gabriele Cunningham, a former North Carolina State sprinter and  Mallard Creek High graduate, is adjusting her timeline to prepare for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

As the uncertainty grew, so did Kenny Selmon’s frustration.

It had been more than a week since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11. The NBA suspended its season days later after a player tested positive for COVID-19. The NCAA cancelled all remaining winter and spring sporting events.

Yet, the International Olympic Committee hadn’t made a firm decision on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, originally set to begin July 24. After the IOC stated on March 17 that it was “fully committed” to putting on the games as scheduled, committee president Thomas Bach acknowledged two days later that the IOC was “considering different scenarios.”

Selmon, a former UNC-Chapel Hill hurdler, had already lost access to Georgia Tech’s track and field facility, which is about 20 minutes from his hometown of Mableton, Georgia. Selmon had spent months there training with the goal of qualifying for a spot to compete in the 400-meter hurdles in the Olympics.

“I was like, ‘Well, look, if the Olympics are going to be cancelled, then why do we continue to go out and risk our health?’” Selmon recalled. “But we didn’t have the option to be like, ‘I’m going to stay home and just hope that this all works out and that I don’t lose my training.’”

Then, on March 24, the IOC and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jointly announced the games were postponed until 2021.

For Selmon, the news, in a way, provided a sense of tranquility in an otherwise chaotic time.

“It was kind of just scary to go out there and train without really knowing about the virus,” he said. “So, once the Olympics were (postponed), it brought me peace to know that I can take a step back and reevaluate the severity of the virus and then kind of restructure my training.”

Having run since he was 12, Selmon went through the 2016 Olympic trials as a college sophomore but didn’t make the team. By 2017, he knew he had a shot at making the 2020 cut, especially after he won the 400-meter hurdles at the ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Now, Selmon is among the many athletes who must maintain their level of physical and mental readiness for another year, all while finding a new routine amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have been training intensely this entire year, and I’m in the best shape of my life,” Selmon said. “That was all brought to a halt.”

‘Embrace the journey’
Heading into her senior year at N.C. State in 2018, Gabriele Cunningham began realizing what she was capable of accomplishing. The Charlotte native was coming off of an indoor season in which she earned All-America honors for the first time in the 60-meter hurdles.

Cunningham, a Mallard Creek High graduate, started to make what she describes as a “lifestyle change.”

“I became a lot more focused on everything,” she said, “the little things in practice that had to do with my form, pushing myself even harder in workouts.”

It paid off. In the final year of her collegiate career, Cunningham set three individual school records. She continued to train at N.C. State’s facilities to try to qualify for the 100-meter hurdles. Then she received news of the postponement on the morning of March 24, through a screenshot of a news article her father had sent her.

Though Cunningham was initially disappointed, she quickly found the silver lining of the situation.

“My main thing that I’ve been trying to do this year is just embrace the journey that comes with all of this,” Cunningham said. “I kind of just looked at it as more time to perfect things and do what I needed to do with my training.”

Nick Gwiazdowski, a former two-time NCAA champion wrestler at N.C. State, like Cunningham and Selmon, also looks to embrace this new journey.

Only nine days before the IOC’s decision was announced, Gwiazdowski won gold at the Pan Am Olympic Qualifier in Ottawa, Ontario, to help the U.S. gain a spot to represent the 125-kilogram weight class in Tokyo.

Still, he’s keeping the same mindset he had when the games were set to take place this summer.

“I’m committed to this whether the date’s tomorrow or if it’s in a year,” said Gwiazdowski, a 2016 N.C. State graduate. “It is what it is. I can’t control a damn thing about it, so I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”

Athletes’ positive attitudes don’t make the adjustment to this new normal any easier, though.

Selmon went from training five days a week to three days, with two of those days at home without his coach. Cunningham says she’s used various objects around her house to lift with no access to a weight room. Gwiazdowski has avoided in-person meetings with his coach altogether.

“It’s been wild,” Selmon said, “and it’s been forcing us to get creative.”

‘Not backing off’
Most Olympic-caliber athletes haven’t taken off several months in a row from competition and intense workouts since they were children. And with the Tokyo Olympics now rescheduled for July 23 to August 8 of 2021, too much time away would be detrimental.

“World-class athletes are adaptable and persistent,” Gwiazdowski said. “And they’re flexible to where bad things can happen; they bounce back. They don’t stay in those cracks. The people that are staying in those cracks and lose focus, they’re not world-class.”

For Selmon, motivation comes from checkpoints he’s set for himself — which have to do with more than just winning races.

“I still have things that I want to prove to myself,” Selmon said. “And I still have goals. I still can see myself achieving things that I have not achieved yet. So I’m not backing off.”

But there have been benefits from having time away from competing, too.

Being off the track has allowed Cunningham to recognize that there are often issues that are bigger than sports. She encourages other athletes to do the same.

“We love to compete — that’s why a lot of us do it,” Cunningham said. “But we have to think about how a health crisis like this would not only affect us, but (how) it would affect fans also. And so, taking a step back, removing ourselves from it and thinking about it in a bigger picture is the best way to go about it.”

Just as Selmon and Gwiazdowski are doing, Cunningham is maintaining the intensity of her workouts. The challenge will be keeping up that pace for a year longer than she originally anticipated.

What Cunningham’s found most beneficial is staying optimistic through this unprecedented event. That’s a lesson she believes anyone, athlete or not, can learn during these times.
“(I’m) trying to encourage my fellow athletes, and just anyone, in this time to remain positive and listen to the precautions that we need to take in order to calm what is going on so that we can get back to our daily lives,” she said.


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