The road to Tokyo was mapped out for Lynn native Rashida Ellis. After winning by unanimous decision in the USA Boxing team trials in December, she had punched her ticket to Team USA’s training camp in Colorado Springs in January.
Ellis, the top-ranked US women’s lightweight, was one of five women who trained there through March, readying themselves for the Olympic qualifiers in Buenos Aires, slated for March 26-April 3. From there, she would focus on the final qualifier in Paris in May.
But around mid-March, Ellis, 24, began to sense that things were changing around her and around the world. She remembers USA Boxing high-performance director Matt Johnson calling a meeting to talk to all the fighters. Then she remembers checking her phone and seeing a flurry of alerts on social media.
Oh, the Olympics aren’t going to happen now!
Initially, Ellis didn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right,' " she said. “Olympics are this year. We’re going to get this gold this year.”
But as the updates kept pouring in, she couldn’t ignore it.
“Everything just happened at once,” Ellis said. “It still hasn’t hit me yet.”
In a blink, Ellis went from being laser-focused on her goal of chasing down an Olympic medal to a holding pattern. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic was undeniable when the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed to next year. For those 12 months, Ellis will have to put her plans on hold.
“We’re supposed to be in Argentina right now, getting ready to qualify for the Olympics,” Ellis said. “But all this happened and it just set everything back.”
The Olympic training center in Colorado Springs was shut down in late March. Athletes were sent home. Even then, Ellis held out hope that an Olympic run would still be possible this year.
“Honestly, I was just waiting to see what was going to happen,” she said. “Like to see how long this quarantine and everything was going to pan out.”
But as more and more COVID-19 cases were confirmed around the globe, international leaders had to make a difficult decision. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced the unprecedented decision to push the Games back to 2021.
Ellis returned to Massachusetts and quickly settled into a new routine. Instead of training three times a day, she trains twice at Private Jewels Fitness. She works a job in the mornings, then hits the gym in the evenings.
“While I’m here now, I have a gym that I go to and it’s open,” she said. “So I’m still staying active, which is great because not many people have a gym to go to. They have to train at home, which is difficult.”
Sparring isn’t an option. Neither is pad work. She can’t even have coaches talk her through workouts.
“I’m basically focusing on my technique right now because it’s just me working myself,” she said. “I’ve just got to focus on the basics and master it.”
She was relieved to be able to come home and be closer to family in a crisis. She had lived in Colorado full-time the past two years. The most she had been home in the past year was about a month and a half.
Ellis began boxing at the age of 10, following her brothers Ronald and Rashidi, both professional fighters who trained at Somerville Boxing Club under Alex Rivera. Tagging along with her brothers turned into training six days a week.
Since winning the USA Boxing Youth Open title in 2010, Ellis has been dominant, winning the Youth Open two more times (2011, 2013), the national PAL title in 2012, the Elite National Championship twice (2013, 2018), and the National Golden Gloves in 2016. Last year she went to Peru and won the Pan-American Games qualifier.
She initially had her sights set on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, but fell short.
Ellis had plans beyond USA Boxing that were turned sideways because of the changes. Once the Olympics were over, she intended to begin her professional career by the end of the year.
“That was my plan,” she said. “Right after the Olympics, 'Boom, I’m turning pro.’ Now I’ve got to wait a whole ‘nother year.
"But I can wait 14 more months. Just train harder. I’ll get wiser — and a little older, you know?”
Ellis was confident about what could have been for Team USA this summer. The postponement didn’t change that. And in a way, she believes the organizers did the Americans a favor.
“They messed up,” she said. “With Team USA having to train another year for the Olympics? Oh, we taking medals.”
In the meantime, Ellis will continue to train. Her coaches have told her that the plan is to return to Colorado to train in mid-May, but that certainly could change.
“My mind’s still on that goal,” she said. “I’m not going to give up. I’m just going to push through.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.