For two judokas at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games the pandemic was the push they needed to make the match of a lifetime.
USA's Ben Goodrich and Sweden's Nicolina Pernheim met during a competition at Tokyo's Kodokan Judo Institute in 2017 and started dating in 2018. Now they are back at Kodokan, the official training venue for judo at Tokyo 2020, as experienced Paralympians and engaged.
Almost 8,000km separated the international judo couple as they began their long-distance relationship. As Covid-19 struck, Colorado-based Goodrich discovered he was not only missing his girlfriend, but also judo sparring partners.
"Judo is a close-contact sport, so you need to be touching your opponent, especially in Paralympic judo, and that's totally the opposite of what we’re trying to do with Covid," Goodrich said.
“It was definitely hard to train at some points. During some months things were shut down. You couldn’t train with other people. Like shadow boxing, you could do shadow sparring and grappling, but you can only learn so much from that.
"So I spent most of my year over in Sweden where they had fewer restrictions as far as masking (is concerned), and being able to work out in small groups, especially for national team members there and people on the elite level."
Despite the nearly 40kg difference in their weight classes, Goodrich and Pernheim often found themselves helping each other during judo training in Sweden.
“He’s just moved to Sweden," Pernheim said. "Since about Christmas, we’ve been training together, at the same club. He’s under 100 kilos, and I’m 63 kilos, so same club, but not the closest of training partners. But during Covid, early spring, I was allowed to train with him, but no one else because we were already together."
Somewhere between the grappling and the throws, Goodrich ended up with more than a new training partner.
“I proposed in December last year and we’re planning to have a small wedding with just family in January because of Covid. We're trying to make sure we can get that going, because we want to start that part of our lives too,” he said.
Goodrich finished ninth in the men's +100kg event at Rio 2016, while Pernheim was fifth at Rio 2016 and seventh at London 2012 in the women's -63kg event, and fifth at Beijing 2008 in the women's -70kg.
Pernheim is in action on Saturday and faces Ukraine's Iryna Husieva in the B1 quarter-final while Goodrich competes in B2 on Sunday against RPC's Anatolii Shevchenko.
Having twice finished one place off the podium, Pernheim is determined to go one better at her fourth Paralympic Games, now with her fiancé's help.
“I don’t want to be close. I want to take a medal. That’s what I want, very much," she said. "And it’s good that we both understand the sport and how important it is in our life, and prioritising judo over social things. It would be different if you were with someone else who didn’t understand it as much."