By Jason Maholy
Pat Brucki was in the middle of a workout at the Princeton wrestling facility, preparing for his match the following day in the first round of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, when one of his coaches walked in with the news.
“I’m sorry, they canceled the NCAAs and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Brucki remembered hearing.
Shortly after that, Tigers head coach Chris Ayres called a team meeting at which the heartbreaking information was formally announced. The NCAA had canceled its national wrestling championship, bringing to a sudden and finite halt the seasons of six Princeton grapplers who had qualified, including returning All-Americans Brucki, Matt Kolodzik and Pat Glory.
Those six represented but a small percentage of the amateur winter sports athletes whose seasons were cut short when their postseason competitions were canceled as part of the nationwide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments March 12, and the dominoes fell from there, concluding with the cancelation of all spring sports.
The NBA suspended its season March 10 after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19, and the NHL and MLS postponed their seasons the following day. MLB followed on March 12.
The sweeping social actions and measures that have followed, including Illinois being among several states in which governors have issued “stay at home” orders, are unprecedented in the lifetimes of most Americans. They’ve also taken most people out of their routines, as they adjust to working or attending classes from home, and not frequenting gyms, fitness centers, restaurants, bars and other social gathering spots.
For Brucki, an Orland Park resident and 2017 graduate of Sandburg, being taken out of his routine meant an abrupt shift in his universe. He had for the past nine months been training so he would be on the mat battling toward a national championship on March 13. Then, on the eve of the tourney, the quest was over, and by no fault of his own.
He acknowledged experiencing a wave of thoughts and feelings in the wake of the season being shut down, but his initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he said. “I was in the middle of a workout and then I was like, what do I do now? What does this mean? Do I stop working out? Am I suddenly in the offseason?
“Then it sinks in and it’s like, wow, I guess this is a real thing. It left me in kind of a confused state. How do start the next chapter and where does it start?”
The disbelief gave way to a combination of emotions as he processed the dynamics of a complex situation to which he was largely unprepared and wholly unfamiliar.
“I mean, yeah, I was angry,” he said. “Few people understand how much work it takes for a wrestler to get where you want to be. What you put into it all season – it’s an absolute grind.
“The biggest thing for me was just letting it sink in that the work you did in July and August, the hill sprints and the bike sprints in September. All that work is leading up to the pinnacle of our sport, the NCAA championships. And the other thing is I understand this virus is serious thing and there is a very threatening public health issue going on, and we have no other option but to respect that. It’s definitely pulling you in various directions.
“It just sucks that all that work – nine months of dieting, eating, training, sleeping – doing everything right, and you’re not going to get that opportunity,” Brucki said. “It feels empty. You just feel kind of gypped, just a little robbed.”
Brucki also feels empathy for his teammates who also had qualified for the tourney.
One of them, senior and three-time All-American Matt Kolodzik, is an Olympic hopeful and had redshirted this season so he could retain a year of NCAA eligibility while training for the Olympic freestyle wrestling trials. Kolodzik, however, pulled his redshirt and returned to the team in February to give the Tigers a lift when their 149-pounder went down with a season-ending injury.
As a result, he lost the chance to close out his senior season, on his terms, wrestling for a national title. Kolodzik was undefeated heading into the tournament. Like most senior winter and spring sports athletes, his college career could be over unless the NCAA grants them an additional year of eligibility.
“I feel for him,” Brucki said, and noted the finality of a wrestler’s senior season, given there is no professional wrestling league where the best of the best play after college. “I’m really wondering what the NCAA is going to do. I just want them to make it right for those guys.”
The idea of an additional year of eligibility has gained some informal support. The NCAA on March 30 granted an additional year of eligibility to all students-athletes — not only seniors — who compete in spring sports.
“I think that’s a great option. I think that would be fair,” Brucki said. “We were 90 percent of the way through the season, but athletes live for the NCAA championships. These are guys’ dreams… and you had the rug ripped out from underneath you.”
Bigger than Sports
The whirlwind last few days for Brucki at Princeton this academic year ended March 17. Four days after wrestling’s unceremonious end, he was home. As were boxes filled with his belongings, as the university closed campus for the remainder of the spring semester, meaning all students in dorms had to move themselves and everything else out.
The structural engineering major recalled the atmosphere during the last week or so on campus as “different” – confusing and maybe a little unsettling. On top of the usual challenges of balancing athletics with academics, students were in the midst of taking mid-term exams while dealing with a rapidly evolving public health crisis because of the coronavirus, which was at the time just beginning to affect daily life on the East Coast.
“There was the stress of the virus spreading and social distancing, and we’re still practicing but don’t know if we’re going to have our tournament,” he said. “It was like, what the heck is going on right now? Things are changing quickly.”
The tournament was canceled on a Friday, but earlier that week all winter sports championships were on track to eb held as scheduled. The wrestling championships were still going to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, but without fans.
“We didn’t think it would affect us because it was going to be at the dome in Minnesota, and at that time all of us were pretty sure we were still going,” Brucki said. “Then all the conference championships were canceled (March 12), and when they canceled March Madness we kind of knew we were in trouble.”
The immediate aftermath has been somewhat chaotic as he is now home during a viral outbreak and under state order not to leave his home unless necessary, while preparing to adjust to classes going online when they resume after spring break. He will in the meantime gather himself and meet the challenges the unprecedented situation brings.
An All-American wrestler doesn’t have the temperament to back down when adversity rears its head, and although Brucki doesn’t claim to have the answers he believes the path he has chosen has prepared him to appropriately handle what life throws his way.
“Being a wrestler an studying at an Ivy League school is about the hardest path a e person can take in life, and that’s the reason why I took it – because I thought it was going to make me the best man. And I think it’s doing that,” he said. “It’s challenging me in ways that I expected and in ways I hadn’t expected, and that’s part of growing up and becoming a man, part of becoming a well-rounded person.”
He attempts to compartmentalize as best he can, but that’s not always simple or even possible, given that his priorities can pull him in different directions simultaneously.
“It’s about being present where my feet are,” he explained of how he tries to maintain balance. “When I’m in the wrestling room I’m a full-time wrestler; when I’m in the classroom I’m a full-time student. But it never really goes that smoothly or as planned. You have assignments and exams and you’re also training, and you’ve got a road trip that’s coming up. Then you’re doing classwork at the airport on the day of a competition, trying to cram a couple hours in before a dual (meet). That’s where it gets really hard.”
Now he’ll be taking classes online and has unanswered questions about whether he’ll be able to reach his professors when he needs them and how he’ll work with classmates. Then there’s wrestling, for which spring is an important time of year as guys begin preparing for the next season. He’ll be working out alone and unsupervised by coaches for the foreseeable future.
“It’s going to be a really big challenge,” he said of the overarching change in routine and to reality, at least how he has known it to be as an Ivy League student-athlete. “The system has been flipped upside down, so we have some figuring out to do. We’re in uncharted territory and all we can do is try our best to get acclimated to the new setting so we can get through the academics, and as for athletics you must work hard on your own.
“A lot of Division I athletes know what it takes for them to be successful and what they have to do, but it’s putting a lot of stress on them.”
Brucki knows what he must do – he couldn’t have placed fourth in the NCAAs in 2019 and earned All-American status if he didn’t. Plus, he has a strong support system behind him, from his family to his coaches and teammates. Those people, he says, were a major reason he has attained such success.
“It’s an absolute honor and a privilege to be called an All-American,” he said. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is maintain that focus and drive for seven months, and put all that energy time into achieving one goal. And I have so much respect for the sport and the people around me and the people who have helped me get there.”