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Competing in the ultimate contact sport, wrestlers grapple with virus risk

Adeline Gray grimaces as an opponent grasps her around the neck on the mat.
U.S. wrestler Adeline Gray competes with Turkey’s Yasemin Adar at the Tokyo Olympics. Gray is among the favorites to win gold in her weight class.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

At every turn during these Olympic Games, people are reminded to sanitize their hands. And no touching the hand-sanitizing station, please — just use the foot pedal.

On the way into buses, on the way into venues and on the way to the stands, the machines are as omnipresent as the Olympic rings, a reminder that you should be careful what you touch.

Except for on these mats.

Olympic wrestling began at the sanitizer-stocked Makuhari Messe Event Hall, with people putting their hands all over one another. There’s no other way to compete in this sport.

The unkind temperatures and high humidity in Tokyo have made for a difficult Olympic Games for athletes not used to the brutal conditions.

It’s what has made wrestlers’ preparation for these Games different from the experience of many others competing in Tokyo: the necessity to grapple with others at a time when health experts are warning people to keep their distance.

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“Wrestling teaches us the ability to be flexible and abilities to adjust,” American Adeline Gray said after advancing to the finals in her weight class. “And we constantly preach that this helps us as people, and I got to practice that in a real-life situation when a pandemic has shut down the world.”

Monday night, German Aline Rotter Focken upset Gray in a bit of a dream match between two close friends. Gray secured the silver for her first ever Olympic medal.

A five-time world champion, Gray was able to train during the pandemic with her younger sister, Geneva, an accomplished wrestler herself.

Adeline Gray and Yasemin Adar ares hown forehead to forehead.
Adeline Gray, right, competes with Yasemin Adar of Turkey at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“We found ways to still work, and I was very blessed and had a sister who was able to put her life on hold. And she was somebody I wasn’t scared of,” Gray said. “I wasn’t worried about her going out and catching COVID because we were living the exact same life with the same rules with the same people in the same environment.”

The two worked out together for more than six months before they were able to deepen Gray’s pool of training partners.

The close proximities, the swapped sweat, faces inches apart when they’re not pressed together, all of it certainly seems like a risk during a global pandemic with a highly contagious virus. Sure enough, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention tracked one superspreader event back to a wrestling tournament in Florida last winter.

According to the CDC, 44 wrestlers from that tournament were tested; 31 came back positive.

Knowing that their sport presented logistical problems, most of the competitors had to find creative ways to train, especially in the early months of the pandemic.

Canadian Erica Wiebe, the 2016 gold medalist in Rio in Gray’s 167.5-pound weight class, said she had to train on grass before putting a wrestling mat in her basement. She’d spend time even fighting herself — shadow wrestling — imagining different attacks and counters and trying to fight them off.

“Every single Olympic athlete can write a book after this year,” Wiebe said.

When Rotter Focken learned that her city was likely headed for lockdown, she went to her wrestling club and snagged the mat. Her family owned a gym, and she figured she could work out there for a few weeks.

That turned into four months, she said with a laugh.

She wrestled with her husband, a Greco-Roman wrestler, for months before getting back into a normal training regimen.

“I could train all the time with him. [But] it was really hard because he’s a Greco-Roman guy. My ribs,” she said with a laugh. “But yeah, I don’t have so many problems like wrestlers because I have my own gym. My family is really crazy about sports.”

Not everyone competing took such measures. Germany’s Eduard Popp, a Greco-Roman 286.6 competitor, said he didn’t concern himself with potential spread, even though he’s not vaccinated.

A man grasps another man around the back, grimacing at the elbow against his throat.
Armenia’s Amen Melikyan takes down Iran’s Ali Nejati during a wrestling match at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Popp said the close contact with training partners and competitors was necessary to prepare, and he trusted the protocols in place to keep the coronavirus off the mat.

“I don’t care about it. We don’t think about it. Because it’s always, it’s our mentality. It’s the wrestling sport,” Popp said. “We get all the testing at times before we go into camps or training, and you have to switch it off, all these things, to get in your best shape. When you always think about it, about the pandemic, about the infection of yourself, you [can’t] get in shape.”

He still has to sanitize his hands, even as he’s covered with his and his opponent’s sweat. Everyone has to sanitize. Because, no matter what, in these pandemic Olympics and in the buildup to them, one unlucky day or one bad decision can knock you out of action before you ever have the chance to get pinned.

“I just had a Plan A to Z, you know, for every single outcome,” Wiebe said. “And it’s like, you’ve got to catastrophize your situation. You’ve got to think of what’s the worst-case scenario and how to work back from that to still be successful. And every single day was going through that those scenarios.”


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