Ex-Penn Stater Zain Retherford wrestled for shot at Olympics amid COVID-19 outbreak. Why?

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Zain Retherford is shown here during wrestling days at Penn State.

It never entered Zain Retherford’s mind that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to earn a place for the United States in the 2020 Summer Olympics, not even as the pandemic and the subsequent panic crept across North America.

Two vans, filled with members of the U.S. wrestling team, trundled 150 miles northwest earlier this month, from northern New York to southeastern Ontario, and Retherford never considered the possibility that he, as one of those wrestlers in one of those vans, would not compete in the Pan-American Olympic Qualifying Tournament, held at their destination, the Shaw Centre in Ottawa.

There, the top two finishers in each weight class would earn quota spots for their countries at the Tokyo Games. You can’t wrestle in the Olympics if your nation hasn’t qualified at your weight first.

Retherford – a three-time NCAA champion for Penn State at 149 pounds – would be wrestling at 65 kilograms in the freestyle division, assuming the tournament went off. USA Wrestling had told the athletes: Whatever your decision, even if you choose not to wrestle because you don’t want to risk exposure to the coronavirus, we will support you.

No choice to be made: To Retherford and his teammates, however, there was no choice to be made. It did not matter that the rest of the sports world was descending into cancellations and chaos, that the NBA and NHL had suspended their regular-season schedules and that the NCAA had made its wrestling championships disappear.

Retherford and the other wrestlers had been sequestered for four days at a training camp at Lake Placid, the news just noise to them. No one told them that the tournament was canceled, so they piled into those vans.

“It was like, ‘This is an opportunity not many people get,’ ” Retherford, 24, said in a recent phone interview. “We were just controlling the aspects you can control. We’re here, and we’ve been disciplined with our training and getting our weight down. Might as well go out and, if we’re allowed to, just give our best.”

Bizarre setting: So, on Sunday, March 15, perhaps the only major sporting event on the continent was playing out on a disinfected mat inside a cavernous, mostly empty arena, and Retherford’s dreams hung there in the balance. That setting, as the virus has continued its advance in the days since, seems so … what? Understandable at the time? Irresponsible in the moment and in retrospect?

At a strange time, there might have been no stranger sports scene than this one, and Retherford, a great college wrestler who had yet to achieve the goal – becoming an Olympian – that had driven him since he was a boy, was at its center.

Farm boy: What else was he going to dream about as a boy? He had grown up on a northeastern Pennsylvania produce farm where the most plentiful crop that his parents, Allen and Sarah, harvested was pumpkins, and in his first match, when he was in kindergarten, he started crying after his opponent pinned him. His father’s response: If you’re gonna cry, we’ve got work on the farm you can do instead.

By second grade, he was all in on wrestling. By the end of his career at Benton High School, near Bloomsburg, he had compiled a 130-3 record, won two state championships, and so roughed up his coach, Russ Hughes, during a workout that Hughes had to have shoulder surgery weeks later. By the end of his career at Penn State, he was a runaway train, 94-0 over his final three seasons.

“I’ve always told him from the get-go, if somebody’s undefeated, there’s usually a 0 there – 159-0,” Hughes said. “I always called it an egg. Zain’s goal was to find those types of people, take that egg, and splat it.”

Pademic creeps closer: In 2016, still in college, he finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials, and after he came that close to making the team then, he had planned for his fiancée, who was visiting her family in Florida, to fly to Ottawa to watch the qualifying tournament. But the pandemic and the panic kept creeping, so she never made it to the tournament, and he figured that, by driving from Lake Placid, he and his teammates were avoiding any airports or large gatherings that might put themselves or others at higher risk.

“We were just taking it as it went,” Retherford said. “In the event something crazy happened, where Canada and the U.S. said, ‘We’re going to close the border, and we’re not letting people in,’ we all would have come home. But it didn’t come to that, thankfully.”

No, it came down to a conference call among Ottawa health officials and the power people of wrestling, including Stan Dziedzic: vice president of United World Wrestling, the sport’s international governing body; an Olympic bronze medalist at the Montreal Games of 1976, and a native of Allentown. Dziedzic, the other administrators, and many of the athletes and coaches had been in Ottawa for more than a week.

General public banned: The Shaw Centre had hosted the Senior Pan-American Championships, from March 6-9, and the qualifying tournament had begun on March 13, and virtually everyone involved in either or both events was staying at the Ottawa Westin, which was next door.

The officials banned the general public from the Centre, allowed only the teams and wrestlers who were competing at a particular time to be in the arena, and held the tournament. “They’re not in an environment where they’re encountering different people,” Dziedzic said, which differentiated the tournament from the NBA or NHL. If he were overseeing those leagues, he said, he would have canceled games, too.

Wrestling culture: But this wasn’t Game No. 66 out of 82 on a six-month regular-season schedule. This was a chance for an athlete to qualify his or her country for the Olympics, and these were wrestlers, and the fundamental principle of the sport, its entire culture and ethic, is that wrestlers are tougher than other athletes, that the nature of the contest – two opponents, alone on the mat, in such close contact, calling on all their strength and technique and desire to break the other’s will – doesn’t make them more susceptible to a deadly virus.

No, it makes them less susceptible, because it fortifies their immune systems until they’re practically impenetrable, able to slough off any bacteria or bug, and it allows them to understand their bodies so well that even a stray pound or the slightest sniffle feels like a rock inside their shoe that they can just remove once it becomes too bothersome. The pandemic and the panic kept creeping, and USA Track & Field and USA Swimming urged national Olympic officials to work toward postponing the Tokyo Games. USA Wrestling did not. Draw your own conclusions.

Getting pinned: Retherford had wrestled in front of 16,000 people at Penn State, inside a packed Bryce Jordan Center for his biggest Big Ten matches. Ottawa was not that. “There might have been 30 people in there,” he said. But he cruised through his first two bouts, against Puerto Rico’s Jose Rodriguez Colon and Colombia’s Wber Cuero Munoz, winning both by technical fall. His third match, in the semifinals, was against Argentina’s Agustin Destribats. The winner would qualify his country for the Olympics.

Early in the bout, Retherford scored a takedown. Then, the unthinkable: Destribats flipped him and pinned him.

“It was weird,” Retherford said. “I haven’t been pinned, even in practice, anything like that, since I was in grade school. Crazy. All those memories, all the training you’ve done up until that point goes into one moment. You bottle up all these experiences, and I’ve come to this point in my career where I lay it all on the line. I don’t know. You put all that into it. It’s crushing.”

Uncertainty looms: Now there is uncertainty. USA Wrestling was supposed to hold its Olympic Trials on April 4-5 – at Penn State. If Retherford won there, he could still earn an Olympic berth at the World Qualifier in Bulgaria, which was originally scheduled for the end of April. But both the trials and the qualifier have been postponed.

The International Olympic Committee is pushing the Tokyo Games to next year. Retherford wonders what all this will mean for him and the opportunity he missed. He feels fine, has no symptoms or signs of coronavirus, and none of his teammates do, as far as he knows.

He wants a second chance. Maybe the trials and qualifiers finally arrive and he crushes all comers. Maybe someone suffers an injury. Maybe someone gets popped for a steroid.

The pandemic and the panic keep creeping, and he hopped into that van and rode up to Ottawa to follow his dream and cast aside the risk, and he’d do it again, but what did it lead to?