Local Olympic athletes, hopefuls say decision to postpone Games was right one

  • St. Francis graduate and Bartlett native Kelsey Robinson, a member of the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team, had her gold medal hopes put on hold Tuesday when the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games.

    St. Francis graduate and Bartlett native Kelsey Robinson, a member of the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team, had her gold medal hopes put on hold Tuesday when the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games. Photo courtesy of FIVB

  • Lake Park graduate Zach Ziemek competes in a men's decathlon 110-meter hurdles heat during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    Lake Park graduate Zach Ziemek competes in a men's decathlon 110-meter hurdles heat during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Libertyville graduate Laura Zeng performs during the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around qualifications at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    Libertyville graduate Laura Zeng performs during the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around qualifications at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
 
Updated 3/24/2020 7:22 PM

They are not called Team USA for nothing.

Regardless of age, experience or sport, local Olympic veterans and hopefuls are united toward doing what's best in light of the International Olympic Committee's decision Tuesday to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"From my perspective there are just bigger and more important things going on in the world, and the safety and health of not only the athletes but the people in Japan and the people in the world who would be traveling to the games and taking part, I think their health and safety is at risk. I think the IOC did a great thing by postponing it," said Kelsey Robinson, a bronze medalist in women's volleyball at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The Bartlett native and St. Francis graduate is uniquely positioned to comment. Like many of her peers she has extensive international experience. On Tuesday she was combating jet lag after being sent home by her professional team in Istanbul, Turkey, which tours Europe in ChampionsLeagueVolley.

"I was in Europe for the last five months, and (coronavirus) was a hot spot there for awhile before it came to the U.S.," she said. "So I've kind of seen firsthand what has happened and how difficult it is, and I think it's just tapping the surface here in the U.S. I just hope that everyone is doing their part and kind of waking up to what's going on."

Robinson feared the IOC may cancel, not just postpone, the Olympics. She was not alone.

Another member of the U.S. women's team, 2013 West Aurora graduate Lauren Carlini, has been dreaming of being an Olympian since seventh grade.

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"Absolute bummer," Carlini said. "Bright side is they are only postponing for a year and not two years or total cancellation. That would have been close to unbearable."

Carlini returned home Saturday from Russia, where she had been playing professionally for the Moscow Dinamo. She's doing her best to move forward with as positive a perspective as possible.

"It gives us younger players another year of professional experience so that can never hurt," said Carlini, a Team USA setter. "There's going to be plenty of obstacles and changes in the coming months, so it will be up to us to not let our emotions take a negative turn. We have to stay diligent about our training and staying fit within our quarantines."

A bright side?

While an absolute bummer, the postponement does have a bright side for Wheaton Warrenville South graduate Thomas Jaeschke. Playing Team USA volleyball in October's World Cup in Japan the 6-foot-6 outside hitter -- like Robinson a bronze medalist in Brazil -- dislocated a shoulder and tore a labrum.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He's set to return in May but due to recovery and range of motion issues Jaeschke gave himself a "maybe 60-40" chance of earning one of the 12 spots on the Olympic squad, which he anticipated could still be decided in early June.

It might be a break for the 26-year-old, but he feels for other athletes.

"I know there are definitely guys who are talking about possible retirement afterward, they weren't planning on going overseas again because of their family and this and that, so there's a lot of things that come into play that all this affects," said Jaeschke, joined on Team USA by another Wheaton native, Jeff Jendryk.

"I think I'm a little bit on the other end of the spectrum seeing that I had the injury, that'll give me a more time to recover. So I definitely see both sides, but selfishly it's not the worst thing in the world for me, but (there is) general frustration," Jaeschke said.

Rolling with it

Frustration doesn't begin to describe what Olympic rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng is feeling. The 2018 Libertyville High School graduate -- two-tenths of a point from advancing into the all-around finals at the 2016 Olympics, she said -- deferred her education at Yale to dedicate herself to 2020.

"I definitely feel patriotism and just working for the past four years toward this goal that I want to compete at Tokyo," said Zeng, who had secured one of USA's two slots into the Tokyo Olympics. "I want to fulfill my career and just complete that down the line, but at the same time I am committed to Yale and I have put my education on hold for two years. So there's definitely a lot of components to think about. So there is some uncertainty."

In a sport in which she said an athlete peaks at around age 20, how long can the 20-year-old Zeng maintain that Olympic edge, even if she is the five-time U.S. all-around champion?

"If anything this is a moment in history," Zeng said. "It is what it is, but also a real dose of life, and you have to roll with it."

Deanna Kuzmanic is doing just that, and will continue to next year. The 2015 Wheeling graduate, a former shooting guard for Alabama-Birmingham's women's basketball team, parlayed the Puerto Rican background of her grandparents, Max and Elsi, into making that country's national team.

In July she went there to try out, made the cut, even played professionally there through October. Meanwhile, she helped make history.

After successful qualifying tournaments in San Juan and Canada, in France the team became Puerto Rico's first women's basketball team to qualify for the Olympics with an overtime win against Brazil.

Kuzmanic, who squeezed in volunteering for Fremd's Class 4A championship girls team this season, would have needed to try out again in May.

"I don't know if they'll hold another trial," she said.

"It definitely is a little disappointing when so many athletes have been training for a very long time for this, and especially Puerto Rico, its first time for women's basketball qualifying for it, so there's so much excitement behind that," Kuzmanic said. "But I feel this is the right decision. You have to put the safety first of, really, the world because the Olympic Games is global."

Younger athletes affected, too

Not every aspiring Olympian is a 20-something.

Neuqua Valley junior Rachel Stege was slated to swim the 200-, 400- and 800-yard and mile freestyle at the Olympic Trials starting June 21 in Omaha, Nebraska. That and three other national meets she'd planned to attend were canceled.

"I was just happy to be able to go and I was just going to have an experience and whatever happened happened, I wasn't really expecting anything," said Stege, who won three events at the Illinois High School Association meet in November and is ranked fifth nationally in the Class of 2021 by collegeswimming.com.

"I'm upset, obviously, but I think there's nothing we can do about it. It's the whole world going through this right now, it's not just me, it's thousands of people."

It's the younger athletes that Lake Park graduate Zach Ziemek, who placed seventh in decathlon at the 2016 Games, thinks of most.

"My heart goes out to so many athletes that were trying to take the next step and make it to the Olympics and live out their dreams," he said. "I think what's overseen is all the NCAA athletes. A lot of those guys and girls are my teammates, and that was extremely heartbreaking when I had several friends that are seniors and they're not going to able to come back and finish out their last year. That's what really was sad for me."

Meanwhile, Ziemek spends time with his wife, Victoria, does what he can to stay in shape near Madison, Wis., and thinks positive thoughts.

"It's disappointing but now it's time to get back to basic stuff," he said. "I wouldn't say that a lot of our seasons are over since a lot can change by the summertime. I know the Olympics are done but there still could be meets and facilities reopening where we can still salvage our hard work that we put in the fall and use this summer to then prepare for next year. Hopefully every athlete that's training can get better and be even more prepared for the 2021 Olympics."

John Lemon and John Radtke contributed

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