The path from Villanova swimmer to U.S. Olympic triathlete had been a long and grueling one for Summer Rappaport, who punched her ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Games at an Olympic qualifying event last August.
With more than 11 months separating the awarding of her berth on the U.S. triathlon team and competing on the Olympic stage on July 28, she planned to put in the training necessary to return to peak form and vie for a medal, the end of what she once called “my craziest dream.”
Sadly, the crazy dream was put on hold last month when the International Olympic Committee decided to postpone the Games for no more than one year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While she called the postponement “disappointing,” Rappaport said the move was “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“It has to do with the health and safety of the public,” Rappaport, 28, who competed as Summer Cook before marrying Ian Rappaport in 2018, said recently in a telephone interview from her home in Durham, N.C.
“It’s just hard to imagine that with people coming from every corner of the world, and descending on one city over a short span of time, that would promote the health and safety of the public, especially since it’s just a few months out from now and we aren’t even at the peak of the pandemic.
“Then the second reason is because the playing field would just be so uneven. Most athletes don’t have access to their training facilities and are just trying to get in whatever they can. For most athletes, it’s pretty far off of what they would normally do.”
Rappaport never competed in a triathlon before her graduation from Villanova in 2013, but she had excelled in two of the disciplines in college. She swam for four years with the Wildcats. In addition, after competing in the 2010 Broad Street Run “for fun," she made ‘Nova’s track and cross-country team as a walk-on and earned All-Mid-Atlantic and All-Big East honors in cross country in 2012.
She said she didn’t own a road bike during that time but picked that up quickly after entering USA Triathlon’s college recruitment program. The move, which came after she gave up her final season of cross-country and track eligibility at Villanova, led to her earning elite triathlete status in March 2014 and sparked her Olympic dream.
“I started swimming when I was 9 years old after watching the Sydney Olympics in 2000,” she said, “and I started because I wanted to do what those athletes were doing. I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I wanted to win a gold medal.”
Rappaport progressed steadily. She captured her first International Triathlon Union World Cup championship in April 2016 and now has eight for her career. The apex of her climb came on a hot and muggy day last Aug. 15, where she swam 1,500 meters, biked 40 kilometers and ran 5,000 meters to finish fifth in the Tokyo Olympic Qualification event, making her a U.S. Olympian.
“That was the same course the Olympics will be held on,” she said. “The humidity in Tokyo at that time of year is very oppressive, and probably the worst humidity I’ve ever experienced.”
When 2019 competition ended, Rappaport took her customary November off, resumed with strength-based training in December and flew to Europe in January to start training camp with her squad. Shortly afterward, COVID-19 began to dominate the news, and it hit close to home for her in late February.
“I was getting ready to pack up and head to a race in Abu Dhabi,” she said, “and it turned out that the week before our triathlon, there was a cycling event that happened in the same location in Abu Dhabi. Several staff and athletes tested positive for coronavirus. It was in the same area, they stay in the same hotels, so that event got canceled. So then it was kind of a lot of cancellations.
“The more I was reading about the virus, it just seemed impossible that the Olympics could possibly take place in July as planned. I was relieved that it was a postponement instead of a cancellation so at least now, all of the athletes have the opportunity to live out their Olympic dream.”
The challenge now for Rappaport is finding the means to train. She can work out on an indoor bike trainer, and she’s finding the best places to run in Durham, where she moved with her husband in January. But she knows of no access to swimming facilities.
“Since we don’t know when we’re going to race again, it’s kind of hard to set a plan moving forward,” she said. “I guess right now it’s just about trying to stay as fit as possible so when things reopen and things start to come back onto the calendar, we can be ready to go.