By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post, July 19, 2021
TIMONIUM, Md. – Five years ago, Becca Meyers was on the floor of her room in the Olympic Village at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, balled up and sobbing, frustrated and terrified. She had stopped eating because she couldn’t find the athletes’ dining area. Even after her parents rescued her and pumped her full of calories and confidence in time for her to win three gold medals and a silver for Team USA, she made a promise to herself:
She would never put herself through such a nightmare again.
On Sunday evening, roughly five weeks before the start of the Tokyo Paralympics, Meyers, a deaf-blind swimmer with a chance to medal in four events, pulled the plug on her Olympic dream – most likely forever. With a click, she sent an email informing U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials of her decision to withdraw from Team USA.
The decision was rooted in both self-preservation and a larger sense of duty and purpose.
“I would love to go to Tokyo,” Meyers, 26, said in the living room of her parents’ home in the Baltimore suburbs. Tokyo would have been her third Paralympic Games; her first was London 2012, when she was 17. “Swimming has given me my identity as a person. I’ve always been Becca the Swimmer Girl. I haven’t taken this lightly. This has been very difficult for me. [But] I need to say something to effect change, because this can’t go on any longer.”
Born with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left her deaf from birth and that progressively has robbed her of her sight, she requires a personal care assistant (PCA) to function as an athlete and as a member of society.
Since 2017, in the aftermath of Rio, Meyers has had an understanding with the USOPC that permits her mother, Maria, to travel with her to international competitions as her PCA. The results have been spectacular. In 2018, she won five gold medals at the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia, and in 2019, she won four medals and set two world records, the eighth and ninth of her career, at the World Para Swimming Championships in London.
For the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, however, Meyers’s needs have collided with the drastic restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Competitions are being held almost entirely without spectators, and significant limitations on foreign delegations mean personal care assistants, including Maria Meyers, will not be permitted into Japan for the Paralympic Games. For Becca Meyers, that meant she wasn’t going to Japan, either.
“She’s given her entire life for this. It’s unacceptable. It’s heartbreaking,” Maria Meyers said. “She is terrified to go [alone]. And I mean terrified – like, rolled up in a ball, shaking.”
“I haven’t been sleeping. I’m so stressed,” Becca Meyers said. “My training started to suffer because of this situation, and I just haven’t been able to be the best I can be. I know I can be the best I can be with the resources I need. It’s worked for the last four years.”
Whose call is it?
The question of who is responsible for the policy is where the story gets complicated. In explaining the situation to Meyers and her family, the USOPC has cited the restrictions imposed on foreign visitors and delegations by the Japanese government and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee.
“There remain no exceptions to late additions to our delegation list other than the athletes and essential operational personnel per the organizing committee and the government of Japan,” Rick Adams, chief of sport performance and national governing body services for the USOPC, told Mark Meyers, Becca’s father, in a June 29 email, a copy of which Meyers provided to The Washington Post. “As I said to you both on the phone and over email, I fully empathize with your concerns and wish we could fine [sic] a way as we have in the past.”
However, the Meyers’s, having worked connections in the U.S. government and the Olympic and Paralympic movement, have reached a different conclusion.
“We contacted the Maryland secretary of state. We had somebody contact the Japanese government, the ambassador – they all say it’s not the government [and] it’s not the organizing committee. It’s the USOPC that’s blocking this,” Mark Meyers said. “They can ask for more [official credentials]. – They just did not plan for her. They knew about this [issue] in February. They said, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ They’ve had time to fix this, if they asked the right people. They’ve chosen not to.”
Added Becca Meyers: “No one has ever asked me what I need. No one has ever asked me that question. When we had a meeting in May to discuss this, I presented my case and I said, ‘Okay, how do we make this work?’ They talked right over me. They dismissed me. They said, ‘This is what we have; you’re going to have to deal with it.’ ”
Facing criticism for Paralympian’s withdrawal, USOPC defends athlete support system
In a statement provided to The Post, the USOPC responded: “We are dealing with unprecedented restrictions around what is possible on the ground in Tokyo. As it’s been widely reported, [the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games], at the direction of the government of Japan, is not permitting any personnel other than operational essential staff with roles related to the overall execution of the games, into the country.
“This position has resulted in some athletes advising us that they will not accept a nomination to Team USA for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We are heartbroken for athletes needing to make agonizing decisions about whether to compete if they are unable to have their typical support resources at a major international competition, but our top priority is ensuring the safety of our athletes, coaches, staff and the citizens of the host country.”
They are Olympians. They are moms. And they no longer have to choose.
Foreign Olympic and Paralympic committees have been forced to reduce the size of their delegations relative to past Games. Within those reduced numbers, individual countries have some discretion in determining who is in and who is out. The Meyers’s figure the USOPC doesn’t want to give one of its spots to Maria, because once you let one PCA in, you have to let them all in.
Instead, the USOPC has told the family there will be one dedicated PCA for the U.S. Paralympic swim team, which consists of 34 athletes, plus six coaches who can assist with personal needs.
“This is the Paralympics. We should be celebrating everyone’s disabilities,” Becca Meyers said. “We’ve broken barriers in society, defying all odds. And yet this is how we’re treated? Like a burden on the team?”
The Meyers’s believe PCAs of Paralympians should be designated as essential personnel, a category that, for example, has been extended to include golfers’ caddies and the grooms who attend to horses in equestrian events during the Olympics.
“They all need support,” Becca Meyers said of the teammates who will go on to Tokyo without her. “The other athletes need a dedicated PCA as well, but now they’re sort of fending for themselves. They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to get around. I’ve talked to some of them, and they’re afraid.”
A dream deferred
Among the 34 U.S. Paralympic swimmers, nine are designated as sight-impaired – but Meyers is the only one of the nine who is also deaf. Her sight has degenerated in recent years to the point where her Paralympic category was downgraded from S13, the least impaired of three categories of sight-impaired Paralympic swimmers, to the middle category, S12. (Swimmers who are totally blind, or close to it, are categorized as S11.)
In addition, while cochlear implants have helped Meyers hear to some degree in quiet settings, she relies largely on lip-reading when in crowded, loud situations – such as the kind that might be found around every turn at a Paralympics. And this summer, with masking mandated at all times in Japan, her lip-reading skills would be essentially worthless.
“I’d love to wrap something around their eyes and stick something in their ears,” Maria Meyers said of the officials denying her daughter a dedicated PCA in Tokyo, “and drop them in the middle of the Village and say: ‘Okay, now get yourself to the pool. Good luck.’ ”
Two years ago, Meyers decided to leave her home club, North Baltimore Aquatic Club, to join Nation’s Capital Swim Club in the Washington area. There, she trained under Bruce Gemmell, best known as Katie Ledecky’s coach in Rio, where Ledecky won four golds and a silver. Meyers’s star was ascendant; she had a sponsorship deal with Speedo and a pair of ESPY awards as best female athlete with a disability on her resume.
“As soon as she got in the water – I don’t want to oversell it, but she immediately reminded me of Katie,” Gemmell said. “She basically said: ‘I want to work. I want to get better. I don’t care what obstacles there are.’ She was so focused. – I talked to her the other day, and I called her a superhero. I think I understated that.”
When the pandemic arrived, Nation’s Capital Swim Club, like practically every other team in the country, had to scramble to get pool time, and the 5 a.m. practices at an outdoor pool – in darkness that reduced her limited sight to zero – simply wouldn’t work. So Meyers moved back to Timonium, working out mostly on her own at a local gym that eventually reopened its pool and seeing Gemmell only sporadically. But she maintained her level of fitness and performance, and at the Paralympic trials last month, she posted the best S12 400-meter freestyle time in the world this year.
At the time, she still held out hope she could convince someone in power to allow her to bring a PCA to Tokyo.
“Your heart just breaks for her,” said Gemmell, an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s swim team in Rio. “It seems to me if our focus is athletes first, which it should be but which it isn’t always – if athletes first is what we’re doing, then we as a USOPC, we need to do better. We must do better.”
The Tokyo 2020 banner that once hung from the mantel in the Meyerses’ living room – the one with the “1” scrawled into the white space of the second “0” when the Games were postponed until 2021 –
came down a few weeks ago. One fight was over, but as Becca realized, another was just beginning.
“It’s been really hard,” she said. “But I know I have to step up and say enough is enough. I need to protect the younger kids. I have to do something to force change.”