NC’s Olympians will wait a year for Tokyo Games

With the Summer Olympics on hold until 2021, some athletes benefit while others delay their dreams

Former Duke swimmer Ashley Twichell earned a spot in the Tokyo Olympics with her top-10 finish in the 10-kilometer open water swim at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, but she will have to wait another year to compete in her first Olympics. (Lee Jin-man / AP Photo)

Imagine competing in a long-distance race and just as you get within sight of your ultimate goal, the finish line gets moved far off into the distance.

Ashley Twichell doesn’t have to imagine: It’s happening to her and others athletes from North Carolina now that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 31-year-old swimmer has been attempting to earn an opportunity to represent her country in the Olympics since 2008 when she was still an undergraduate at Duke. After trying and failing three times, she finally accomplished her goal last July by qualifying for the Games with a top-10 finish in the 10-kilometer open water swim at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

But just as her Olympic odyssey was about to come to a triumphant end, the road to Tokyo has taken an unexpected detour.

“I was extremely excited for the coming summer, and it has certainly been a long journey,” said Twichell, who represents the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary and continues to train (while practicing the proper social distancing) at Jordan Lake. “I had planned on retiring after this summer and moving on with the next chapter of my life. However, things are often out of our own personal control, and this is one of them.

“I am choosing to look at this as a ‘gift’ of an extra year of swimming that I didn’t know I was going to get, and I am going to make the most of it. I also have hope that next summer’s Olympics will be more special than ever, seeing as what the entire world is going through right now.”

Twichell also hopes to qualify for the 1,500-meter freestyle in the pool once the U.S. Olympic Trials are eventually held.

Regardless of how she does there, she’s already earned the distinction of becoming her country’s oldest first-time Olympic swimmer since 1908. She’ll also be the second-oldest U.S. female swimmer behind 41-year-old Dara Torres in 2008.

Understanding that this was likely her last best shot of getting to the Games, the urgency of her situation kicked in over the final 800 meters of the world championships last summer. She passed seven other swimmers to finish sixth, in a time of 1:54:50.5.

“I felt a mix of relief and joy after spending so many years chasing this dream,” Twichell said following that race. “Throughout that time, I was encouraged by getting faster in open water and pool and never lost my desire for the sport no matter how many struggles there were.”

Twichell and other U.S. athletes that have already qualified for the Games will retain their spots on the team for the rescheduled Olympics, which will now be held from July 23-Aug. 8, 2021.

Lucas Kozeniesky of the U.S., right, competes on his way to winning gold in the men’s 10-meter air rifle shooting final at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, in 2019. Kozeniesky, who went to NC State, has qualified for the Tokyo Games. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP Photo)

Another member of that group is NC State graduate Lucas Kozeniesky, who earned his ticket to Tokyo as part of the U.S. shooting team by winning the men’s 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Trials in Colorado Springs on Feb. 9 — doing it in impressive fashion by tying the relay world record with a score of 633.5.

Like Twichell, Kozeniesky was disappointed when he learned that the Games had been pushed back a year. But having already been to the Olympics, finishing 21st in his competition at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, he’s able to be more philosophical about the delay than others.

“I think it’s a good thing to get it postponed for a bunch of reasons, but really just for public safety as far as travel, making sure everyone can get there and have a good time, athletes preparing or whatever,” he said. “It changes a lot as far as training is concerned. But it does leave enough time for a lot of people to pivot and make the right decisions to be successful.”

For some prospective Olympians, that extra time could end up being the difference between making the trip to Tokyo and watching the games on television from home.

That includes pole vaulter Scott Houston, who underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia on March 3 and would have been rushed to get back into top form by the Olympic Trials in Oregon in June.

Scott Houston, who competed collegiately at UNC and is now an assistant coach at High Point University, is recovering from injury and could benefit from the Olympics’ one-year delay. (Matt Dunham / AP Photo)

“The decision (to have the surgery) was to give me my best chance to make the team this year, albeit a fairly tight window,” said Houston, who graduated from UNC and is currently an assistant track and field coach at High Point University. “I was ready to rely on experience for confidence as needed.

“So this (delay) is a benefit to me personally as more recovery time to let my injuries heal is always better. I was really jumping and training well through December until my injury occurred, so I was in a good place to jump really well this upcoming season.”

Other North Carolina athletes with realistic shots qualifying for the Olympics include 2016 gold medalist Ryan Held and fellow NC State swimmer Coleman Stewart; former Wolfpack wrestler and Pan Am Games gold medalist Nick Gwiazdowski; middleweight boxer Naomi Graham, a Fayetteville native who won a silver medal for the U.S. at the Pan American Games in Peru last year; Charlotte pole vaulter Keon Howe; former UNC soccer star Crystal Dunn, a member of the U.S. women’s national team; and Canadian basketball player Aislinn Konig of NC State.

Two-time world champion Ryan Nyquist, a resident of Wilmington, is the coach of the U.S. Freestyle BMX team.