Maya Wasowicz’s Olympic Dream Interrupted

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Maya Wasowicz was all alone when the last glimmer of her Olympic dream died.

The world’s best karate fighters were punching in Paris to determine who would go to the Olympics. Wasowicz and his supporters felt that he should be there too. Instead, she sat on a bed in her grandmother’s apartment in Opole, Poland, and broadcast the event live on her phone—alone, in the dark.

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

Over the next few weeks, Olympic fans will swallow a tide of heart-warming tales that illuminate the dreams of scores of dedicated and exceptional athletes. Stories of sacrifice and success, years of hard work, rewarded in a moment of victory. Then there are the stories of those left behind, many of whom are dedicated athletes like Wasowicz, who dream of medals but find complex political obstacles in their path.

Wasowicz, an 11-year-old Polish immigrant to the United States, discovered karate as a girl in Brooklyn and has become one of the world’s most elite fighters. In 2016, when news floated that karate would be promoted at the next Olympics, Wasowicz made a life-changing decision to try to become one of a handful of competitors in Japan, the sport’s ancestral home.

He put the rest of his life on hold, moved in with his family, and immersed himself in education. He even dared to picture himself in Tokyo, in the arena, fighting for his adopted country with the American flag on his suit.

To earn this coveted spot, Wasowicz first needed to win a local tournament in Colorado Springs in January 2020, where he entered as one of the favourites. But on a day of controversy and acrimony, Wasowicz lost his mind unfairly. An investigation by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee seems to support the claim of him and other athletes who say the US National Karate-Do Federation is riddled with nepotism and conflicts of interest.

In a stern report in April, the committee found that the federation “could not fulfill the responsibilities of an Olympic Sports Organization” and warned that it would be removed from national government status if it did not address some serious issues. body.

But for Wasowicz and others, the report came too late. The USOPC did not demand that the federation hold a new contest to correct the injustices that existed in Colorado Springs.

“I feel validated that I am not just a suffering loser,” Wasowicz said. “People outside saw what was going on. But seeing that they’re getting away with it all, it’s really hard to accept.”

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

Wasowicz, 27, was born in New Jersey but spent the first 11 years of his life in Poland before his family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2005. Wasowicz remembers everything about his first day in the new metropolis. His father took him across the Williamsburg Bridge and showed him the magnificent view of Manhattan radiating from below. A few hours later, he saw his first mouse on the subway.

Life in a crowded urban setting can be overwhelming at times, especially during the staggering first year at school when Maya and her younger brother Kuba struggle to grasp the bite of English. The Polish markets and restaurants surrounding the city were where the Wasowicz family found temporary shelter and support.

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

One day they happened at the Goshin Ryu dojo, a karate school in Brooklyn. It was led by Luis Ruiz, who remained Wasowicz’s intuition or coach. Maya and Kuba were delighted with the physical output karate offered, where English wasn’t as important as dedication, discipline, and honor – or a good measure of athletic ability.

Wasowicz’s parents welcomed an activity to help their children who are bullied at school defend themselves and gain 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.

Wasowicz discovered basketball while attending Tompkins Square Middle School. When he moved to Beacon High, Wasowicz joined the school’s varsity team and became the school’s career scoring leader and the first Beacon player to retire his number four years later. He won an academic scholarship from New York University and played basketball for the Violets for four years, negotiating the complex balance between varsity sports, rigorous academics (he majored in economics), and karate.

“I adored Maya,” said Lauren Mullen, head coach of NYU at the time. “Here’s this 11-year-old girl who doesn’t speak English and then goes to New York University doing two really high-level sports, and all that with that confidence and toughness you rarely see. He was just a winner.”

But when his basketball career came to an end in 2016, Wasowicz’s Olympic dream came to the fore. He put aside any career passion for work and returned to his parents’ apartment in the East Village for the next five years while training with Ruiz two or three times a day in Brooklyn.

“Every athlete has to make that decision,” he said. “You put your life on hold and do anything for it.”

A heavyweight fighting in the plus-68 weight class, Wasowicz grew stronger and more dangerous. He was part of a USA team that won the bronze medal at the world championships in Austria in 2016 and reached #7 worldwide. He won a gold medal at the Pan American championships in 2019.

Entering the US team trials in Colorado Springs in early 2020, Wasowicz was brimming with confidence and poised for destruction. But according to Wasowicz and Ruiz, interesting things happened during their game against rival Cirrus Lingl that day – their claims are supported by both video footage and independent investigation.

John DiPasquale, president and president of the USA-NKF, who has had a tremendous influence on the sport, walked behind the scoreboard several times in Wasowicz’s matches against Lingl. DiPasquale runs the best dojo in Illinois where Lingl has trained, and in one of the first fights between fighters that day, Wasowicz was enraged, feeling that DiPasquale was trying to influence the score in Lingl’s favor. During a timeout, Wasowicz and Ruiz decided that if it happened again, they would file a complaint with the referee.

A video of one of these later matches shows Wasowicz pointing in surprise at DiPasquale as he hovered behind the table during a scoring review. He is also seen pacing behind the table during the action, perhaps only nervous for his fighter. But as the USOPC pointed out, it seemed inappropriate and aroused suspicion.

Wasowicz claims he beat Lingl earlier in the day but didn’t get the points he deserved. This result kept Lingl in the competition and got him and Wasowicz fighting again in the final. There, Lingl, an expert in his own right, won with a deft head shot. Enraged, Ruiz unloaded on DiPasquale and claimed that the president had influenced the outcome.

When reached by phone to comment on the investigation, DiPasquale said, “No chance, man,” and hung up.

Others in the US federation dismissed prejudice complaints. “Maya is one of the best we’ve got,” said Brody Burns, head coach of the U.S. Olympic team and a sensei at the top dojo in Texas. “But it’s not like he’s caught in anonymity. He lost to a good fighter.”

Wasowicz admits that he and Lingl are equally matched. But that day he felt he was better and should win a place in the crucial Paris qualifiers.

But a few weeks later, their problems were overshadowed by the pandemic. During the shutdown, Wasowicz weighed his options and learned that other athletes had made similar charges against DiPasquale and the federation. The USOPC agreed to look into the matter and hired DLP Piper, an international law firm, to investigate.

In a letter from Holly R. Shick, chief ethics and compliance officer of the USOPC, to DiPasquale and the national karate federation, dated April 24 and received by The New York Times, the committee called for urgent reforms. He noted the “seriousness of the issues” and said that ending the federation’s status as a national governing body “may be appropriate at this time”.

The investigation found numerous real and perceived conflicts of interest, and the letter noted that there was a perception of “a bias in favor of the athletes of Mr. DiPasquale’s and Brody Burns’ dojos” by athletes and coaches. The researchers wrote that they think other athletes routinely “have to beat the system to be successful.”

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

It read like an indictment, but it did nothing to further Wasowicz’s hopes for a remake of the qualifying event. So he sat alone in that dark room in Poland on a family vacation in June and broadcast Lingl’s fight in Paris on his phone’s small screen.

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

“Part of me clearly wanted him to win to keep hope alive,” said Wasowicz, who had dim hope that he could somehow go as an alternative until the final defeat. “There was also a part of myself that I didn’t like, if he loses the first round, that will prove my point.”

Now in New York, Wasowicz is in recovery. Except that it’s five years later, she’s focused on starting a career like most of her NYU classmates. He teaches at his dojo several days a week, submits 20 resumes a day, and is preparing to attack the next phase of his life just like the last one.

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

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