Promising Canadian wrestler ready to adjust her Olympic sights
Braxton Papadopoulos, 17, may now have to go all-in for Rio
It was Kirk Papadopoulos who first found out about the decision that caught everyone in the wrestling community unawares.
The International Olympic Committee executive board had decided to drop wrestling from the program of the 2020 Games, over other potential casualties like modern pentathlon and taekwondo.
After the initial shock came his much more tangible realization: "We really only have one last shot, in 2016?"
The "we" in that quote is the operative word. A budding Olympic athlete doesn't go it alone, and it has been an all-around family undertaking in terms of dedication, time, money and support for his daughter, precocious wrestling talent Braxton Papadopoulos.
Braxton regularly beats older foes on the mat in the sport that became her passion not long after she took it up about seven years ago. Just a couple weeks after her 17th birthday, at the Canada Cup tournament last year, she ceded only seven points in three matches against opponents who typically thrive at university and senior competitions.
An all-around athlete who's also competed in hurdles for her high school, the Ajax, Ont., resident tried taekwondo before wrestling really took hold just as she entered her teen years.
"The second year something clicked and she's had good success since then and it's been her passion and our life has kind of revolved around it, trying to get her to where she needs be," said her mother, Jennifer.
To hear Braxton tell it, she gained a tremendous amount of confidence after notching victories over high school kids when she was only 13 years old.
"That's when I started realizing, this is what I want to do with my life, and I started planning out my goals and the Olympics was one of them," she said.
There's now a major hitch in those plans to follow in the footsteps of Canada's multiple Olympic medallist wrestlers Carol Huynh and Tonya Verbeek, courtesy of the IOC.
There are no tidy analogies. It's like being told halfway through your studies that your dissertation has been pushed up a year. A dissertation that involves punishing physical toil.
The wrestling community from around the world has reacted forcefully to the surprising decision, given the fact that it's a sport that involves a high level of physical fitness and athleticism, has a low financial barrier to entry, and regularly features more than 20 countries winning medals in Olympic tournaments.
Let alone history. Wrestling dates back to the Ancient Games, and was right there when the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
'My one chance'
Technically, the drop-dead date for wrestling's inclusion or exclusion from the 2020 Games — which, ironically, could be held in Japan, a wrestling power — is September. But historically the IOC hasn't usually been swayed by backlash or popular will.
The sport is definitely on the program for the next Summer Games, to be held in Brazil.
If wrestling gets excluded for 2020, there hasn't been a moment of hesitation for Papadopoulos as to her future plans.
She's going to Rio.
"I'm putting everything into making 2016," she said. "It's my one chance and I don't want to look back when the time comes and say, 'I should have done more.'"
Papadopoulos said the 2016 Games have always been a desirable goal, but admitted that under normal circumstances, there was the thought that 2020 might have been more in her wheelhouse.
As with other non-glamorous amateur sports, it's a labour of love. She isn't old enough to receive signficant funding, and she's also needed a parent to accompany her to far-flung competitions.
"Braxton hasn't lived a normal teenage life, hanging out at the mall and going out a lot with friends," said Kirk.
Indeed, a typical day for the athlete involves cardio work before school, and weight training and sessions on the mat after classes are done at her club, Team Impact. On the weekends, there are yoga sessions added to the mix.
The second half of 2012, meanwhile, required a significant amount of travel. Papadopoulos finished third in her age category in Azerbaijan, fifth in the world against wrestlers aged 18 to 21 in Thailand, and runner-up at the Copa Brazil to 25-year-old Canadian Michelle Fazzari, who was Verbeek's training partner at the London Games.
After her infrequent losses, Papadopoulos immediately runs through the match in her mind, with an eye towards improvements she can make.
"[Wrestling] has that grind, it always keeps you motivated and wanting to work hard and get better," she said.
Too soon to contend?
Papadopoulos, who's competed in both the 55- and 63-kilogram classes, is ready to put other aspects of her life on the backburner in service of her goal. She plans on wrestlng at the university of her choosing in 2014, but the course load could be affected by the push towards Rio.
The challenge will be great. She could face competitors like herself who've pushed up their timeline, and veterans hanging around for what truly could be a last kick at the can. There's also the fact that in the IOC's bid to streamline several sports in recent years, there are only four Olympic weight classes for the women, as opposed to seven at the world championships.
Canada's women's boxers can relate to that issue. The consensus top two fighters from the country, Arianne Fortin and Mary Spencer, had to settle matters for one spot last year, when they'd typically compete in different weight categories at other international meets.
Women have wrestled at the Olympics only since Athens in 2004, and the majority of finalists in London were experienced grapplers well into their twenties, and in the case of Verbeek and Huynh, their thirties.
Physical prowess is important, but so too is collected wisdom. As Papadopoulos described it, the level of strategizing and mental concentration in freestyle wrestling is signficant.
There's always exceptions to the rule when it comes to young phenoms. Russia's Natalia Vorobieva, barely 21, won gold at the 72-kilo class at the London Games.
That's how old Papadopoulos will be during the Rio Olympic year.
Will it be too soon in her evolution as an athlete to expect her to contend in 2016?
Well, you might not want to count her out.
"This has motivated me to work so much harder," she said.
For potential opponents, that's a daunting proposition.