Maya Wasowicz’s Olympic dream was shattered

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Maya Wasowicz was on her own when the last flicker of her Olympic dream died.

The best karate fighters in the world were throwing punches in Paris to determine who would go to the Olympics. Wasowicz and her supporters all felt she should have been there too. Instead, she sat on a bed in her grandmother’s apartment in Opole, Poland, streaming the event live on her phone – alone, in the dark.

“I was really in mourning,” Wasowicz said a few days later. “My family and friends refused to watch. But I had to see it.

Over the next few weeks, fans of the Olympics will ingest a tidal wave of heartwarming stories lighting up the fulfilled dreams of dozens of dedicated and exceptional athletes. Stories of sacrifice and success, years of hard work rewarded with a moment of glory. Then there are the stories of those who stay, including many dedicated athletes like Wasowicz, who dream of medals but face complex political obstacles.

Emigrated from Poland to the United States at the age of 11, Wasowicz discovered karate in Brooklyn as a girl and became one of the world’s elite fighters. In 2016, when rumors leaked that karate would be introduced at the upcoming Olympiad, Wasowicz made the decisive decision to try to be one of the few competitors in Japan, the sport’s ancestral homeland.

She put the rest of her life on hold, returned to live with her parents and dove into training. She even dared to visualize herself in Tokyo, in the arena, the American flag on her costume, fighting for her adopted country.

In order to earn that coveted spot, Wasowicz first had to win a national tournament in Colorado Springs in January 2020, an event she competed in as one of the favorites. But in a day filled with controversy and acrimony, Wasowicz lost – unfairly, in his mind. An investigation by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee appears to support his claim, shared by other athletes, that the United States National Karate-do Federation is plagued by favoritism and conflicts of interest.

In a scathing report in April, the committee ruled that the federation “is not capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of an Olympic sports organization” and warned that if it did not address some serious issues it would be forfeited. its status as a national governing body. body.

But for Wasowicz and others, the report came too late. The USOPC did not ask the federation to organize a new competition to correct the injustices that may have existed in Colorado Springs.

“I feel validated that I’m not just a sore loser,” Wasowicz said. “People on the outside saw what was going on. But seeing them get away with it all is really hard to accept.

Today Wasowicz is back in New York City, looking for work and trying to make sense of everything that has happened.

Wasowicz, 27, was born in New Jersey, but spent her first 11 years in Poland, before her family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2005. Wasowicz remembers everything from her first day in the country. new metropolis. Her father took her across the Williamsburg Bridge and showed her the magnificent view of Manhattan stretching out below. A few hours later, she sees her first rat in the subway.

Life in a bustling city environment could be overwhelming at times, especially this confusing first year at school where Maya and her younger brother, Kuba, struggled to understand bits of English. The Polish markets and restaurants that dotted the city were places where the Wasowicz family found temporary refuge and support.

“We talk about it all the time,” Wasowicz said. “What if we end up in a random city in the middle of America?” Here I found people who could relate to my experience. We were very lucky to meet in New York.

One day, they stumbled upon the Goshin Ryu dojo, a karate school in Brooklyn. It was led by Luis Ruiz, who remains the sensei or trainer of Wasowicz. Maya and Kuba reveled in the physical outlet offered by karate, a place where English was not as important as dedication, discipline and honor – or a good measure of athletic ability.

Wasowicz’s parents hosted an activity that would help their children, who had been bullied at school, to stand up for themselves and gain self-confidence. For Maya and Kuba, it was just fun, and she continued to work with Ruiz, even after her family moved to Manhattan’s East Village.

It was there, while attending Tompkins Square Middle School, that Wasowicz also discovered basketball. When she moved to Beacon High School, Wasowicz joined the school’s varsity team and four years later was the school’s top scorer and the first Beacon player to retire her number. She got a college scholarship to New York University and played basketball for four years for the Violets while negotiating the complicated balance between college sports, rigorous academics (she majored in economics) and karate.

“I was in awe of Maya,” said Lauren Mullen, NYU coach at the time. “Here’s this 11-year-old girl who didn’t know English and then goes to NYU to play two sports at a very high level, and all with that self-confidence and tenacity that you rarely see. She was just a winner.

But at the end of his basketball career in 2016, Wasowicz’s Olympic dream came to the fore. She put all professional ambition aside and returned to her parents’ apartment in the East Village for the next five years while training two or three times a day with Ruiz in Brooklyn.

“Every athlete has to make this decision,” she said. “You put your life on hold and you do everything you can to achieve it”.

A heavyweight who fights in the over 68 kilogram category, Wasowicz has grown stronger and more dangerous. In 2016, she was part of an American team that won bronze at the world championships in Austria and reached 7th place in the world. In 2019, she won gold at the Pan American Championships.

Ahead of Team USA’s trials in Colorado Springs in early 2020, Wasowicz was brimming with confidence and ready for destruction. But in his matches against rival Cirrus Lingl that day, curious things happened, according to Wasowicz and Ruiz – their claims are supported by both video footage and the independent investigation.

John DiPasquale, president and chairman of the USA-NKF, which has a huge influence on the sport, has been behind the goalscoring table several times in Wasowicz’s matches against Lingl. DiPasquale runs a top dojo in Illinois where Lingl trained, and in one of the first matches between the fighters that day, Wasowicz became enraged, sensing that DiPasquale was trying to influence the score by favor of Lingl. During a break, Wasowicz and Ruiz decided that if this happened again, she would complain to the referee.

Video from one of the latter matches shows Wasowicz gesturing in dismay at DiPasquale as he hovered behind the table during a scoring review. He is also seen pacing behind the table, maybe just nervous for his fighter, during the action. But as the USOPC pointed out, this seemed inappropriate and raised doubts.

Wasowicz claims she beat Lingl earlier today but didn’t get the points she deserved. This result kept Lingl in the competition and ensured that she and Wasowicz would fight again in the final. There Lingl, an expert in her own right, won with a skillful header. Furious, Ruiz landed on DiPasquale, accusing the president of having affected the outcome.

When reached by phone to comment on the investigation, DiPasquale said, “Not a chance, mate,” and hung up.

Others in the American federation have dismissed complaints of bias. “Maya is one of the best we have,” said Brody Burns, head coach of the US Olympic team and sensei at a top dojo in Texas. “But it’s not like she lost to an unnamed name. She lost against a good fighter.

Wasowicz agrees that she and Lingl are tied. But that day, she felt that she was doing better and that she should have won a place in the very important qualifying event in Paris.

Weeks later, however, his problems were eclipsed by the pandemic. During the shutdown, Wasowicz simmered and pondered his options, and learned that other athletes are making similar charges against DiPasquale and the federation. The USOPC agreed to look into the case and hired DLA Piper, an international law firm, to investigate.

In a dazzling letter from USOPC Ethics and Compliance Officer Holly R. Shick to DiPasquale and the National Karate Federation, dated April 24 and obtained by The New York Times, the committee demanded immediate reforms. He noted the “seriousness of the problems” and said terminating the federation’s status as a national governing body “may be appropriate at this time”.

The investigation revealed many real and perceived conflicts of interest, and the letter noted that there is a perception by athletes and coaches “of pro-athlete bias in the Mr. DiPasquale and Brody Burns dojos” . Other athletes routinely feel, investigators wrote, “they have to ‘beat the system to be successful’.”

Phil Hampel, the managing director of USA-NKF, declined to comment. A USOPC spokesperson sent all questions to the letter.

It sounded like an indictment, but it did nothing to further Wasowicz’s hope of retaking the qualifying event. That’s why she sat alone in that dark room in Poland on a family vacation in June, streaming Lingl’s fight in Paris on her phone’s small screen.

Lingl lost in the first round, assuring not only that she would not go to Tokyo, but that the United States would not have a karate fighter in Japan.

“There’s a part of me that obviously wanted her to win to keep the hope alive,” said Wasowicz, who until the final loss had left hope that she might somehow or other. another becoming a substitute. “There was also the part that I don’t like about me, that if she loses the first round, that will prove my point.”

Back in New York, Wasowicz is in the process of recovery. Her goal is to start a career, like most of her NYU classmates, except it’s five years later. She teaches in her dojo a few days a week, sends 20 CVs a day and prepares to tackle the next phase of her life as she did the last.

“You look back to where I was as an 11-year-old and where I am right now,” she said, “if I can do all of this, I can do a lot of things. “

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