“It’s starting to settle in,” Matt Ludwig said.
This was Saturday night in Tokyo. Ludwig, 25, was calling from the athletes village, where he’d arrived from the United States barely hours before his qualifying round in the pole vault Saturday morning. He marveled at the perks—the snazzy weight and exercise bike setup; the 24/7 food court; the key fob he could tap on a machine to get a sports drink.
“Anything you could possibly need,” Ludwig said.
The past 40 or so hours had been a blur. Wednesday night, Ludwig had been back at his apartment in Akron, Ohio. Close to 11 p.m., he got a call from his manager, who told him that the U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendricks tested positive for Covid-19, potentially opening up a slot for a last-minute replacement.
Matt Ludwig was the last-minute replacement.
Ludwig felt awful for Kendricks, a bronze medalist at Rio 2016, but he had to move fast. If he could get himself to the airport first thing Thursday, he could get to Japan by late Friday afternoon, and if he cleared testing protocols there, he could compete Saturday morning.
He was in.
“I said, ‘I’ll figure out how to make it happen,’” he recalled.
What ensued was nothing less than a world record mother/son scramble.
When he got the call, Ludwig was packing up his apartment near the campus of the University of Akron, where the former Akron Zip still trains and helps out as a coach with the university’s team.
The problem? Most of Ludwig’s stuff was back at his mother’s, east of Cleveland.
That’s when Debbie Ludwig sprung into action. She threw together a suitcase—“shorts, t-shirts, a tie, dress shirts,” she told me. Debbie jumped into her 2005 Toyota Camry and bolted south for Akron, arriving sometime after 2:00 a.m.
For a traveling pole vaulter, there’s one travel essential: the poles. Debbie and Matt got in the Camry and hustled over to the university’s field house to retrieve Ludwig’s poles, which Matt fastened to the car with a contraption that secures both of poles to the exterior of the passenger side.
“It looks like a clown car,” said Matt’s sister, Emily.
Then it was off to the airport in Cleveland. Ludwig’s first flight was at 7:40 a.m.—a quick leg to Chicago. A local TV crew met him at the airport, commemorating an improbable journey that would soon go viral.
The past month or so had been a rollercoaster for Ludwig. He’d narrowly missed making the Olympic team at the U.S. trials in late June, finishing fourth. The result was disappointing, but he continued to stay ready as an alternate, just in case the unexpected happened.
“They asked us to prepare as if we were going,” Ludwig said, so he did. He trained with his coach, Dennis Mitchell. When the U.S. team arrived in Japan, he figured that was that.
That was not that. Wednesday morning in Japan, Kendricks tested positive and was sent to quarantine. Team officials scrambled to green light a replacement, but there were numerous steps. When Ludwig’s manager, Jeff Hartwig—a former world-class pole vaulter who also represents Kendricks—told Ludwig to head to the airport, it wasn’t 100% certain he’d be good to go.
The situation made Hartwig nervous. “You don’t want to spin him back on his head and have him saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to the Olympics, I just got the call!’ and then pull the rug out from under him once again,” the manager said.
Ludwig would have to get on a 13-hour flight to Japan on faith.
Emily Ludwig said her brother was built for such a journey.
“He’s always been someone who’s been able to take things on the fly and make the best of any situation,” she said.
Matt’s flight from Chicago to Tokyo was not crowded. He grabbed a whole row to himself, stretched out and even slept for a few hours. The airport was another blur. There was testing, credentialing and details to be hashed out before he could be transported to the village. He didn’t get to his room until 9:30 p.m. He needed to wake up at 4 a.m to get ready for his morning competition.
There was another issue.
Ludwig still didn’t have his Team USA uniform.
They scrambled one together in the morning, an hour before the bus ride—Ludwig’s shorts and singlet fit correctly, but the jacket that may have been a bit too big.
“It’s not like they had a whole full kit prepared for Matt Ludwig sizes,” he said, laughing.
Then it was off to Olympic Stadium, and the biggest day of Ludwig’s athletic life.
Back in Ohio, Debbie hastily assembled a watch party with close family and friends. Debbie had been the first to suggest that Matt try pole vaulting, and she’d been thrilled as he’d starred in high school and college.
Still, “you don’t want to be that parent who thinks your kid is going to be a future Olympian,” Debbie said. “We tried to stay realistic and humble.”
This? This was incredible. Now her son was on the TV, at the Summer Games.
“Your heart just swells,” Debbie said.
Matt did well, all things considered. He cleared his initial jumps with ease, but then he began cramping and started having trouble with the next. He kept at it, giving it his best shot, but he would not qualify for the pole vault final. Two members of Team USA, Chris Nilsen and K.C. Lightfoot, did.
Ludwig was frustrated but realistic. It had hardly been an optimal preparation. “I recognize the craziness of the situation,” he said. “And I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity.”
Now Ludwig was trying to figure out when he had to go home. The protocol is that an athlete has 48 hours to depart after his or her competition ends. That meant leaving Tokyo sometime Monday. His phone continued to blow up with congratulatory messages.
Emily Ludwig said she didn’t want to bug her brother. She wanted the Last Minute Olympian to enjoy every last minute of the experience.
“We’ll attack him as a family when he gets home,” she said.
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Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com
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