Joe Delagrave grew up in Wisconsin but was raised on a staple of a Southern breakfast – grits.
“My mom used to make those growing up, so I have no problems with grits,” said Delagrave, the captain of the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team. “She had a Southern heart. She always made some good home cooking.”
For 12 years, Delagrave and his fellow wheelchair rugby players have feasted on the home cooking at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Facility at Lakeshore Foundation in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Lakeshore is home for this U.S. squad as it prepares to contend for Paralympic gold.
But that team and athletes in other Olympic and Paralympic sports learned this week they’ll have to put the brakes on their chance to represent their country with the announcement that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games have been postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lakeshore Foundation CEO Jeff Underwood said the likelihood of that decision seemed more and more likely as the Tokyo Games drew closer to their scheduled July 24 to Aug. 9 competition window.
The Paralympics were to have been Aug. 25 to Sept. 6.
“It just underscores the seriousness of the situation and the fact that it’s having impacts on every aspect of our lives,” Underwood said. “On the other hand, it was not a cancellation; it was a postponement. That’s an important distinction. The games will go on, just not on their predicted schedule.”
A few days before the announcement to postpone the games, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee surveyed American athletes on the matter. They overwhelmingly suggested postponement and USOPC formally supported that move.
While Lakeshore staffers were disappointed by the needed delay, Underwood said the true pain is felt by athletes who put their lives on hold the past four years in pursuit of a dream.
“They put their families, their jobs, their careers on hold with the idea that as of this summer they would have maybe moved on to other things,” he said. “Now they’ve got to decide whether they want to keep their lives on hold for another year.”
The delay will benefit some who weren’t quite ready for 2020. Some had circled 2020 as the end of their career, one last shot. “Who knows,” the Lakeshore leader asked, “whether they’ll be able, willing to participate again?”
Underwood particularly feels for the wheelchair rugby team that lost in double overtime to Australia in the 2016 gold medal game in Rio de Janeiro.
“My sense is they were at the top of their game,” the Lakeshore CEO said. “They had just come back from the tournament in London a couple of months ago, where they won handily over some of their top opponents.
“We watch these guys train so hard,” he continued. “They’re hungry. And they’ve been working darn hard and everything seemed to be falling in place for that team, leading up to the games this summer.”
Delagrave had even more motivation. He was an alternate in 2016 and didn’t get to compete. The captain of the current squad compared his anticipation to being a child waiting all year for Christmas.
“We were almost at that Thanksgiving point where ‘Man, it’s here. It’s coming quick,’” he said. “Now it’s postponed.”
It’ll be a while before athletes have a definitive new target for the games. Delagrave said they’re caught in limbo amid rumors the Olympics and Paralympics may be in the spring or perhaps on the same dates in 2021.
“Once we find that out, I think it’ll add some more clarity,” he said. “We’ll get our schedule down from the administrators and from our head coach and we can start to circle some dates and then get really re-excited and re-energized about everything.”