Golden Dreams On Hold For Notre Dame’s Tokyo Hopefuls
Sam Grewe meticulously planned out his entire 2019 athletic calendar all the way back in 2016 to help map a course that would ultimately take him to Tokyo this August as a high jumper at the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games.
And for the first three years and seven months, his plan unfolded perfectly.
Fresh off of winning a gold medal last November at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and another gold last August at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Grewe, a 21-year-old Notre Dame senior, was the odds-on favorite to strike even more gold in Tokyo until coronavirus precautions drove the decision Tuesday for event organizers to suspend the 2020 Summer Paralympics and the 2020 Summer Olympics for at least a year.
“It’s totally disappointing because it is something I have been working the last four years for,” said Grewe, who took home a silver medal four summers ago at the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil. “Right after Rio, it was all Tokyo prep.”
In addition to Grewe’s place in the Paralympics, several other current and former Irish athletes were also forging their paths to the 2020 Summer Olympics, including marathoner Molly Seidel (’16), and fencers Mariel Zagunis (’07), Gerek Meinhardt (’14) and Lee Kiefer (’17), all of whom had already punched their tickets to Tokyo. Four years ago, six Notre Dame athletes claimed medals in Rio.
“People don’t realize that proportionately, Notre Dame has a fantastic amount of Olympians and Paralympians,” said Grewe, who has already claimed four gold medals and one silver medal since he began international competition in 2015, just three years after beating cancer and undergoing partial amputation of his right leg as a seventh-grader.
Grewe’s inspirational journey from childhood sickness to athletic success was swift and steady until an invisible novel virus brought his present-day Paralympic push — and a daily routine — to a screeching halt.
With campus closed up and workout facilities locked down, Grewe is faced with the difficult challenge of staying physically active as an athlete and academically viable as a pre-med student in cramped quarters shared with his parents — empty-nesters who recently downsized and moved into a house not far from campus.
A foldable card table and a space heater make up Grewe’s study area in the garage.
A modest weight bench and an exercise bike highlight his limited workout options.
“There is virtually nothing that I can be doing right now to train,” Grewe said. “All the gyms are closed.”
Adding to the frustration and stir-craziness for Grewe — and presumably every other Irish student-athlete — is the helplessness of living in quarantine without knowing for how long.
“It’s almost irresponsible to even try to design a workout plan right now given how many unknowns are still circulating out there regarding what’s going on and when this will be done,” said Grewe, who while in Tokyo planned to break his own world record jump of 1.90 meters (6.23 feet) he set seven months ago at the 2019 Pan Am Games. “It’s too bad for all of us, but suspending the Olympics was really the only choice they could’ve made right now.”
And perhaps there’s nobody better equipped than Grewe to dilute disappointment with a personal perspective. Faced with a decision eight years ago on whether to save his leg through surgical reconstruction or have it amputated and start a new life with a prosthetic, Grewe and his family chose the latter.
“The artificial joints they would have to put in would be too fragile for me to ever return to sports,” Grewe explained. “So I decided to go with the amputation just to provide even the slightest option, the slightest possibility, of a return to athletics.”
In addition to the amputation surgery, Grewe underwent 21 sickening chemotherapy treatments for 18 months through almost all of 2012 and most of 2013.
“Pretty much bed-ridden, super sick,” he said.
Fully recovered and stronger than ever, Grewe forges ahead during these uncertain times in his school, sport and life pursuits, even if Olympic goals are put on hold for the time being.
“Just have to try and make the best out of it, focus on the things that are most important right now,” Grewe said. “We’ll figure all the rest of this out once all of this blows over.”