Maya Wasowicz was all alone when the last flicker of her Olympic dream died.
The world’s best karate fighters were throwing punches in Paris to determine who would go to the Olympics. Wasowicz and her supporters all felt that she should have been there, too. Instead, she sat on a bed in her grandmother’s apartment in Opole, Poland, streaming the event live on her phone — alone, in the dark.
“I was definitely grieving it,” Wasowicz said, days later. “My family and friends refused to watch. But I had to see it.”
Over the next few weeks, fans of the Olympics will ingest a tidal wave of heartwarming tales illuminating the realized dreams of scores of dedicated and exceptional athletes. Tales of sacrifice and success, of years of hard work rewarded in a moment of glory. Then there are the stories of those left behind, many of them dedicated athletes like Wasowicz, who dream of medals, but find complex political roadblocks in their way.
A Polish émigré to the United States at the age of 11, Wasowicz discovered karate in Brooklyn as a girl and rose to become one of the elite fighters in the world. In 2016, when word filtered out that karate would be introduced at the next Olympiad, Wasowicz made the life-altering decision to try to be one of the handful of competitors in Japan, the ancestral home of the sport.
She put the rest of her life on hold, moved back in with her parents and dived into training. She even dared to visualize herself in Tokyo, in the arena, the American flag on her suit, fighting for her adopted country.
In order to earn that coveted place, Wasowicz first needed to win a domestic tournament in Colorado Springs in January 2020, an event she entered as one of the favorites. But in a day filled with controversy and acrimony, Wasowicz lost — unfairly, in her mind. An investigation by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee appears to back her contention, and that of other athletes, who said the USA National Karate-Do Federation is rife with favoritism and conflicts of interest.
In a scathing report in April, the committee found that the federation “is not capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of an Olympic Sports Organization” and warned that if it did not address some serious issues, it would be stripped of its status as a national governing body.
But for Wasowicz and others, the report came too late. The U.S.O.P.C. did not require the federation to hold a new competition to correct whatever injustices may have existed in Colorado Springs.
“I feel validated that I’m not just a sore loser,” Wasowicz said. “People on the outside saw what was happening. But seeing them get away with all of this is just really tough to accept.”
Today, Wasowicz is back in New York, searching for work and trying to make sense of everything that happened.
Learning to Be New Yorkers
Wasowicz, 27, was born in New Jersey, but she spent her first 11 years of life in Poland, before her family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2005. Wasowicz remembers everything about her first day in the new metropolis. Her father took her across the Williamsburg Bridge and showed her the magnificent view of Manhattan spreading below. A few hours later, she spotted her first rat in the subway.
Life in a bustling urban environment could sometimes be overwhelming, especially that first bewildering year in school where Maya and her younger brother, Kuba, struggled to grasp morsels of English. The Polish markets and restaurants that dotted the city were places the Wasowicz family found temporary sanctuary and support.
“We talk about it all the time,” Wasowicz said. “What if we ended up in a random city in the middle of America? Here I found people who could relate to my experience. We were very lucky that we ended up in New York.”
One day they happened upon the Goshin Ryu dojo, a karate school in Brooklyn. It was run by Luis Ruiz, who remains Wasowicz’s sensei, or coach. Maya and Kuba reveled in the physical outlet that karate offered, a place where English was not as important as dedication, discipline and honor — or a good measure of athletic ability.
Wasowicz’s parents welcomed an activity that would help their children, who had faced bullying in school, defend themselves and gain self-confidence. For Maya and Kuba, it was just fun, and she continued to work with Ruiz, even after her family moved to Manhattan’s East Village.
It was there, while attending the Tompkins Square Middle School, that Wasowicz also discovered basketball. When she moved on to Beacon High School, Wasowicz joined the school’s varsity team, and four years later she was the school’s career scoring leader and the first Beacon player to have her number retired. She earned an academic scholarship to New York University, and played basketball all four years for the Violets while negotiating the complicated balance of varsity sports, rigorous academics (she majored in economics) and karate.
“I was in awe of Maya,” said Lauren Mullen, N.Y.U.’s coach at the time. “Here’s this 11-year-old girl who knew no English and then goes to N.Y.U. playing two sports at a really high level, and all with this self-confidence and toughness that you rarely see. She was just a winner.”
But as her basketball career ended in 2016, Wasowicz’s Olympic dream zoomed to the fore. She put any career business ambitions aside and moved back into her parents’ apartment in the East Village for the next five years while training two or three times a day with Ruiz in Brooklyn.
“Every athlete has to make that decision,” she said. “You put your life on hold and commit everything to going for it.”
A heavyweight who fights in the plus-68-kilogram class, Wasowicz grew stronger and more dangerous. In 2016 she was part of a U.S. team that won bronze at the world championships in Austria and reached a No. 7 worldwide ranking. In 2019, she won gold at the Pan American championships.
Heading into the U.S. team trials in Colorado Springs in early 2020, Wasowicz was brimming with confidence and poised for destruction. But during her matches against rival Cirrus Lingl that day, curious things happened, according to Wasowicz and Ruiz — their claims backed by both video footage and the independent investigation.
John DiPasquale, the president and chairman of USA-NKF, which has enormous influence over the sport, walked behind the scorer’s table several times during Wasowicz’s matches against Lingl. DiPasquale runs a top dojo in Illinois where Lingl trained, and during one of the early matches between the fighters that day, Wasowicz grew incensed, feeling DiPasquale was trying to influence the scoring in favor of Lingl. During a break, Wasowicz and Ruiz decided that if it happened again, she would complain to the referee.
A video of one of those later matches shows Wasowicz gesturing in consternation toward DiPasquale as he hovered behind the table during a scoring review. He is also seen pacing behind the table, perhaps just nervous for his fighter, during the action. But as the U.S.O.P.C. pointed out, it looked inappropriate and raised doubts.
Wasowicz contends that she had Lingl beaten earlier in the day but was not awarded the points she deserved. That result kept Lingl in the competition, and ensured she and Wasowicz would fight again, in the final. There, Lingl, an expert in her own right, won with a deft head kick. Furious, Ruiz unloaded on DiPasquale, charging that the president had affected the outcome.
When reached by phone for comment on the investigation, DiPasquale said, “Not a chance, pal,” and hung up.
Others in the U.S. federation dismissed complaints of bias. “Maya is one of the best we have,” said Brody Burns, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team and a sensei at a top dojo in Texas. “But it’s not like she lost to a no name. She lost to a good fighter.”
Wasowicz agrees that she and Lingl are evenly matched. But on that day, she felt she was better, and that she should have earned a spot in the all-important Paris qualifying event.
A few weeks later, though, her problems were dwarfed by the pandemic. During the shutdown, Wasowicz stewed and pondered her options, and learned that other athletes were making similar charges against DiPasquale and the federation. The U.S.O.P.C. agreed to look into the matter and hired DLP Piper, an international law firm, to investigate.
In a blistering letter from Holly R. Shick, the chief ethics and compliance officer of the U.S.O.P.C., to DiPasquale and the national karate federation, dated April 24 and obtained by The New York Times, the committee demanded immediate reforms. It noted the “severity of the issues” and said termination of the federation’s status as the national governing body “may be appropriate at this time.”
The investigation found numerous actual and perceived conflicts of interest, and the letter noted that there is a perception by athletes and coaches “of bias in favor of Mr. DiPasquale’s and Brody Burns’ dojos’ athletes.” Other athletes routinely feel, the investigators wrote, that “they have to ‘beat the system to succeed.’”
Phil Hampel, the chief executive of USA-NKF, declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S.O.P.C. referred all questions back to the letter.
It read like an indictment, but it did nothing to further Wasowicz’s hope of a redo of the qualifying event. That is why she sat alone in that dark room in Poland while on a family vacation in June, streaming Lingl’s fight in Paris on her phone’s tiny screen.
Lingl lost in the first round, ensuring that not only would she not go to Tokyo, but that the United States would not have a woman karate fighter in Japan.
“There is a part of me that obviously wanted her to win to keep the hope alive,” said Wasowicz, who until the final loss had held out faint hope that she might somehow go as an alternate. “There was also the part I don’t like about myself, that if she loses first round, it will prove my point.”
Now back in New York, Wasowicz is in a recovery phase. Her focus is on starting a career, like most of her N.Y.U. classmates, except it’s five years later. She teaches at her dojo a couple of days a week, sends out 20 résumés a day, and prepares to attack the next phase of her life as she did the last.
“You look back from where I was as an 11-year-old girl and where I am right now,” she said, “if I can do all that, I can do many things.”