Nick Tarpley could barely move his neck. The clock was ticking. He wasn’t going to be at his best.
Then, the world changed in a matter of a month. The new coronavirus swept the planet as COVID-19 cases soared and brought the sports world to a standstill. The 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed. Suddenly, Tarpley was given time.
“Crazy times. I know I’m only 24 and haven’t seen all that much, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s insane,” said Tarpley, a Greco-Roman wrestler who has trained full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs since he was 17. “The Olympic Trials were supposed to be April 4. Now, it’s postponed and the Olympics are postponed until 2021. It’s disappointing for a lot of people. It actually could work out in my favor.”
Tarpley, who attended Durango High School before he finished classes online so he could commit to USA Wrestling, last competed in Sweden in December. Usually, Tarpley wrestles at 72 kilograms (158.7 pounds). But the Olympics do not offer that weight class. For the Olympics, he had to choose between 67 kilograms (147.7 pounds) or 77 kilograms (169.8 pounds). He tried first to go down in weight. He was miserable, so he decided to go up.
At 77 kilos, Tarpley said he felt pretty good. He was a little smaller than his adversaries, but he was OK with that even in a sport that emphasizes upper-body strength and throws. What he wasn’t OK with was a neck that has accumulated injuries over the years of constant training and competition. He needed more time to heal to be a more capable wrestler.
“It’s actually quite a very serious neck injury,” Tarpley said. “My last trip was really bad for me. I went to a team camp in the country of Georgia and got really hurt the second day. I didn’t wrestle in Georgia at all. We moved to Sweden, and I wrestled an American I wrestle every day, Corey Hope. It’s just the way the draw worked out. I lost by one point. I couldn’t try anything because I could barely move my neck, but I wanted to give it a go. After that, I didn’t wrestle the rest of the tournament or the next tournament in Finland. I was too injured.”
Tarpley returned to the U.S. He had hoped to compete in the U.S. Open in December in Dallas. Though it was a hugely important tournament for rankings, he decided not to wrestle because he could not move his neck.
But the Olympic Team Trials were calling. He had made the move up in weight classes to give an effort to qualification. If the trials scheduled for April 4 at the Bryce Jordan Center on the campus of Penn State University were to be contested, he was going to be there to compete in front of more than 15,000 fans.
“It’s the Olympic Trials in a sold out Penn State basketball arena. It had been sold out for months. It is the coolest place you get to wrestle other than the Olympics themselves,” Tarpley said. “It’s a big deal, so I was going to wrestle.”
Tuesday morning, the International Olympic Committee decided to postpone the 2020 Summer Games until 2021. No new date has been set as of yet. Tarpley believes the trials, which also were postponed, likely will be pushed to 2021, too.
“Organizers are working closely with local officials and health experts in hopes of rescheduling the event at the Bryce Jordan Center,” USA Wrestling said in a news release.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center closed to its athletes March 18. Tarpley was attending practices one or two times a week until that point. He saw extra precautions being taken as COVID-19 began to change the world around it.
“One of our coaches stood at the door of the locker room before practice. We had to wash our hands after we put clothes on,” Tarpley said. “He would mark our hands with a Sharpie to make sure everyone had washed their hands. Now, the whole thing is closed for everybody.”
Tarpley is now taking the time to rest his neck. He hopes time is the answer and would like to avoid any kind of surgery. Until he can practice again, he is doing push ups, going for runs and doing whatever he can to stay in shape.
Wrestlers work all year to try to be in optimal condition for the biggest tournaments. None are bigger than the U.S. Olympic Team Trials or the Games. For now, Tarpley and his fellow grapplers are all playing a waiting game with the rest of the world.
“It’s really hard to peak,” he said. “It takes months and months and months of planning and work to peak at the perfect time. Now, that’s all thrown out the window for everyone. This works out in my favor to let my neck heal and do the Olympics thing next year. I’m going to try to do all the little things to not get fat and not worry too much. If the Olympics are in 2021, I think it makes sense to hold the trials in 2021, also. I think I’ve got time, and USA Wrestling won’t spring trials on us within two weeks or anything like that. If they give us even two months notice, I think we will be fine.”
Before hanging up the phone, Tarpley had one last thought to share with the world.
“Wash your hands,” he said.