“Not that you’re giving up hope,” Ludwig said. “But you’re sort of like, ‘Wish them luck; they’re going to do great.’ ”
At 11 p.m., Ludwig’s phone buzzed with a call from his manager. Ludwig’s head spun as he listened. Teammate Sam Kendricks, the American record holder, had tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday morning in Tokyo. He had a flight from Chicago bound for Tokyo. It left in eight hours. He needed to pack a suitcase, gather his poles and head to the airport.
“Life sort of flipped upside down in a good way,” Ludwig said. “I would never have expected a call probably 36 hours before competition that says, ‘Hey, you need to get across the world right now.’ But I couldn’t be more grateful or excited for the opportunity to do that.”
The race to reach the Olympics began as soon as Ludwig, 25, hung up the phone. He tossed what clothes he had not packed for the move into a bag. He called his mother, whom he refers to as his “Momager,” and pleaded with her to figure out the move. At 4 a.m., Ludwig drove to the field house at Akron, where he competed in college and remains a volunteer assistant coach. It was fortunately unlocked. He packed the 17-foot instruments and headed for Chicago.
As Ludwig traveled, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials scurried in Tokyo. Athlete ombudsman Kacie Wallace successfully petitioned to add Ludwig to the team after the deadline. The USOPC has a team dedicated to the passage of large equipment: surfboards, kayaks, canoes, sailboats, horses, poles. It worked directly with the airline to make sure they would arrive in Tokyo in time.
Ludwig landed in Tokyo at about 4 p.m. local time Friday. He had taken a portable coronavirus test on the plane; it came back negative. Alternates had undergone some, but not all, of the processing as qualified U.S. athletes, which lengthened his stay at the airport. He arrived at his hotel room at about 10 p.m. He grabbed a snack and went to sleep. The pole vault qualifying round began at 9:40 a.m. Saturday, less than 12 hours later.
“We did a lot of celebrating here when he arrived,” one USOPC official said. “Like, ‘Holy smokes, we did it.’ ”
When he woke up, Ludwig still faced logistical hurdles. He needed to install applications that only Olympians have access to. He had not been sized for clothes, so he didn’t quite fill the extra-large warmup gear provided.
“I didn’t have a uniform until an hour before the bus left this morning,” Ludwig said.
As the sun beat down on National Stadium, Ludwig sprinted down the runaway. He was pretty sure, but not certain, that his grandparents knew he was competing at the Olympics.
Ludwig ran at a bar set 5.30 meters — about 17 feet 4 inches — off the ground. He rammed him pole into the ground and hoisted himself over the bar. He hung in the air for a moment, then fell to the giant mat. The bar stayed in place. Rather than settling into a new apartment, he was moving on to the next height.
Ludwig believed he belonged. At the U.S. trials, he had cleared 5.80 meters without missing any bars before that height. At any other U.S. trials in history, it would have sent him to the Olympics. This year, Chris Nilsen, Kendricks and KC Lightfoot beat him.
The bar moved up to 5.65 meters. Ludwig cleared it in one try. The height increased for the next round to 5.75. Ludwig started to feel his legs cramp. He missed the bar on all three tries. The last miss excluded him from Thursday’s final and ended his Games.
Ludwig did not use the frenzied travel as an excuse. He once arrived in China about 20 hours before a competition and performed well. He felt proud to compete for Team USA, but he also believed that U.S. pole vaulting is so deep that even the alternate could make the Olympic final, and he intended to prove it.
“No one can take anything away from Matt Ludwig ever again,” Nilsen said. “The guy got on a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo, had six or seven hours of sleep, got on the runway and jumped two bars. The respect I have for that man is enormous. He pulled off something that most people in this world probably couldn’t do.”
Nilsen nailed all three of his jumps, and Lightfoot missed only one. Both cleared 5.75 meters and advanced to the final.
After his competition ended Saturday afternoon, Ludwig hoped his mom had taken care of the stuff in his apartment. He still had to figure out how and when he would return home.
“No idea,” Ludwig said. “Hopefully I get a day or two to take things in.”
The first thing he wanted to do was eat lunch. He would check in with his support team back home. Then he would go for a walk. Ludwig had been on the ground for about 20 hours and had not fully considered all that had happened to him so suddenly. His life had been moving too fast for perspective. He knew when it slowed, something would be different.
“This is something that stays for life,” Ludwig said. “I get to have that experience. I get to be an Olympian.”