She should have been on the water – not the pavement – Sunday and it left her a bit unsettled.
“It feels a little strange to be driving home right now,” Molly Bruggeman said Sunday afternoon just after she’d driven across the state line from Pennsylvania into Ohio.
That morning she’d left New Jersey where she lives with a host family and – as one of the nation’s elite rowers and one of just a handful of Dayton-area athletes with a real chance of making the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games – trains at the USRowing training center in Princeton, N.J.
Originally, an Olympic rowing team selection camp was set to begin Sunday in Princeton and had Bruggeman advanced through those ranks as expected, she would have been in one of the boats at the World Championships in Varese, Italy in early May.
But then COVID-19 capsized everything.
Varese is in northern Italy’s Lombardy region, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic that has overwhelmed the world. Only about one fifth the size of Ohio, the Lombardy region, as of Tuesday morning, already had 9,484 deaths from the virus.
As for New Jersey, it has the second most coronavirus cases in the United States with, also on Tuesday, 1,003 deaths and 41,090 positive tests – some of the latter in the Olympic world.
“A member of our medical staff tested positive actually,” Bruggeman said. “But he didn’t show any symptoms so he was still treating us. A couple of my teammates tested positive, too. They all had mild symptoms and nobody was seriously hurting.”
Still that forced many of the rowers – including Bruggeman – to self-quarantine for 14 days to be safe,
Against that kind of backdrop – with athletes in almost every sport worldwide worried about their own safety, not to mention how they would be able to train in these troubled times – the International Olympic Committee finally decided 15 days ago to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Games until 2021.
After spending four years preparing for these Olympics, Bruggeman, like so many other top athletes, found her life in a bit of a tailspin.
Her self-quarantine in New Jersey meant she and a teammate stayed in the room she has above the garage of her generous hosts, George and Ellen Wilson. Down below they set up a pair of rowing machines (ergs) and some weightlifting equipment so they could train as best they could.
The Wilsons would leave their meals near the garage steps.
Once out of isolation – and with officials setting no timetable for the resumption of training, much less the start of the Games – Bruggeman decided to return to her home just south of the University of Dayton campus.
That would mean the Chaminade Julienne grad and former three-time Notre Dame All-American would have to endure another 14 days of self-quarantine here because she was coming in from out of state.
Her nine-hour drive home came with all kinds of revelations.
“Most of the rest areas aren’t really open.” she said. “You can get gas, but that’s the only part open.”
The door was ajar though when it came to self-evaluation.
“This is the most in shape I’ve been in in four years,” said the 27-year-old Bruggeman. ”I felt I was really gearing myself up for one of my hardest parts of the year here. All the excitement, the nervousness, the energy and pain, that was going to get me through the month of the selection process. To have that not happen now is a really strange feeling.”
The coming month will still be especially difficult – for different reasons – as we all deal with the pandemic and how it’s upended our lives. But through the heartbreak and frustration and uncertainty, Bruggeman is able to see the bigger picture.
She has some family members and friends who are in the medical field and are in the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.
“I’m lucky that my biggest concern is when this might be over,” she said. “I feel incredibly privileged that that is my most pressing issue.”
Bruggeman’s introduction to the sport came one Sunday after Mass at Holy Angels Catholic Church on Brown Street.
She said she as about 13 when Mike Miles – who was the dad of her friends and also the University of Dayton rowing coach and the founder of the Dayton Boat Club – suggested she try rowing.
She was tall and had the build to be a successful rower and colleges were offering rowing scholarships to many young women who showed promise.
Bruggeman listened, was initially trained by Miles and had a successful career at CJ and Notre Dame.
She’s now made seven national teams and has travelled the world, competing in Germany, Austria Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Denmark and Great Britain.
She was part of the Women’s 4 and 8 boats that won the Under-23 World Championships in Varese, Italy in 2014. She won pairs at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and won gold again in the 4 at the 2018 World Championship in Budapest.
She missed the Team Trials for 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro because of cracked ribs.
That’s made the Tokyo Games even more important to her.
As athletes prepare for the Games, they often put their lives – jobs, education, family issues – on hold. Because thy make little money, they often live with host families as she does.
She gained a teammate as a roommate recently after someone in that woman’s host family was hospitalized with COVID-19-like symptoms.
As the situation worsened in New Jersey – especially in some of the more densely packed cities and suburbs to the north – Governor Philip D. Murphy ordered flags in the state to be lowered to half-staff.
Eventually state regulations prevented rowers from even training on the water.
Bruggeman said a USOC athlete’s representative held a virtual town hall meeting via Zoom for some 300 athletes from a variety of sports. Many voiced their concerns about training difficulties and personal safety and soon the postponement of the Tokyo Games seemed to be the only viable solution.
Moving the Games back a year has left the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee with a $200 million shortfall, the New York Times reported a couple of days ago. That’s the share of the U.S. media rights that NBCUniversal pays to televise the Olympics.
Some of that money is then used for the stipends paid to U.S. athletes for living and training expenses while they put their everyday lives on old to represent their nation.
And with multiple rowing competitions cancelled across the nation that money will no longer go into the USRowing coffers. It’s caused the organization to furlough and lay off at least one third of its staff and reduce the salaries of many of the remaining people.
Initially, Bruggeman hadn’t planned to return to Dayton until after the Tokyo Games. Now she’s come back to briefly refocus and see family, while also doing some training.
Tuesday afternoon she said she’d already set up her erg and weights in the garage and been working out.
She said she’ll try to stay in her girlhood bedroom during her 14 days of quarantine in order to be considerate of her parents, Mike and Beth Bruggemam, her sister who came in from Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend and their dog. She has seen her grandmother – who is sewing facemasks for family and health workers — from a distance.
“I miss racing right now and being out on the water,” she said. “Right now the (athletes’) biggest questions are that we don’t have any idea when we’ll even be able to start training again. No one knows when quote/unquote ‘normal life’ will return.”
In the meantime, here at home, she said that she’s looking forward to seeing her family and having an Old Scratch Pizza and a beer from Yellow Springs brewery.
With her self-quarantine, the latter two will have be delivered.
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