With tears in her eyes, Nadine Apetz asked herself “why not one more day?”
The German boxer had waited four years, and a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics was tantalizingly close when the qualifying tournament in London was suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“One day longer and I might have had it,” said Apetz, a 34-year-old welterweight who is studying for a doctorate in neuroscience. “I was crying because I was so disappointed. You are so close to your biggest goal, and it’s all stopped.”
The pandemic has forced many Olympic hopefuls to wait it out, but the delay is particularly painful for the European boxers who were on the verge of qualification last month. Several were only one victory away.
The competition at the Copper Box was suspended after three days. A short time later, the Tokyo Games were postponed for one year and are now set to open on July 23, 2021.
“They probably shouldn’t have started it in the first place,” Apetz said, citing public health risks.
Fighters including Apetz, Emilie Sonvico of France and Charley Davison of Britain won their opening bouts. If they win their next one, they’ll qualify.
Likewise, lightweights Luke McCormack of Britain and Nikolai Terteryan of Denmark can qualify in their next bout, while their welterweight twin brothers Pat McCormack and Sebastian Terteryan can guarantee spots with two more wins each.
The London competition lasted long enough for 16 boxers to qualify. Among them was British featherweight Peter McGrail.
“Tokyo 2020 see ya there,” he wrote on Instagram, followed by an expletive about the virus.
Sixty-one European spots remain available.
“It was so painful for me,” the 31-year-old Sonvico, who like Apetz was scheduled to fight again on Day 4, said of leaving London empty-handed. “It’s difficult because we have to go back to training. It’s a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice.”
Like other athletes, they also have practical challenges in lockdown. Davison, a flyweight who set aside earlier Olympic aspirations to start a family, trains at home while co-parenting three young children.
Apetz is trying to finish her Ph.D in neuroscience, examining brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease.
Sonvico is an investigator with the gendarmerie, which conducts police duties but under French military jurisdiction. She’s been on leave while with the national team, but that was to end soon.
“If it goes well, I’ll need one more year,” said Sonvico, who uses a rowing machine and heavy bag at home in the south of France. “It’s a problem. The president of the French (boxing) federation is asking the gendarmerie to see what we can do.”
Both Apetz and Sonvico set goals for Tokyo only after their division — welterweight — and one other was added after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The Tokyo Games will have five women’s classes; the men’s divisions were cut from 10 to eight.
For Sonvico, representing her country is like carrying on a family tradition. Her father spent his career in the military.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve lived with people who wear the French uniform,” she said. “For me, it’s very important.”
Sonvico, who finished ninth at the 2019 world championships, may turn professional after the Olympic cycle.
“People say I fight like Mike Tyson,” she said.
Any athlete who had already qualified for Tokyo has been assured they will keep their spots for 2021. The International Olympic Committee’s task force overseeing boxing said the European qualifier, when rescheduled, will “pick up from where it was suspended” and that other boxers won’t be eligible.
Qualifying tournaments in Africa and Asia/Oceania preceded the London competition, which began on March 14.
The Turkish boxing federation said at least two of its boxers and a coach tested positive for the virus after the London event. However, the IOC task force said it was “not possible to know the source of infection.”
Apetz, a bronze medalist at the 2018 world championships and a six-time national champion, is scheduled to fight 6-foot-1 Karolina Koszewska, a 38-year-old Polish southpaw who won gold at the 2019 European Games.
Apetz, who describes herself as a “clever boxer,” had planned to stop fighting in 2016, but her national team asked her to continue when welterweight was added to the program for Tokyo.
Until recently, Apetz was limited to yoga sessions in her cramped Cologne apartment and some jogging. Relaxed rules now allow her to work out at her gym, but numbers are restricted, so there are no partner drills or sparring sessions.
Eased restrictions may allow German athletes to return to serious training sooner than others, but Apetz hopes that’s not the case.
“It’s not what the Olympic spirit is about,” she said. “You want to earn it.”