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Summer Olympians will get their support systems back in Paris after Tokyo’s COVID bans

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Athletes at the last Summer Olympics remember the sadness and longing of competing with nearly no one in the stands, thanks to pandemic-era restrictions in Tokyo three years ago.

Not just zero spectators and eerily quiet stadiums, which were bad enough. Worse, perhaps? There were no parents or siblings. No lifelong pals or childhood coaches. The people who helped raise and shape Olympians and Paralympians. Who paid for the lessons and drove to the 5 a.m. practices or bought ice cream after a big win and wrapped a comforting arm around a slumped shoulder after a setback.

At the Paris Games, which begin this month, those folks can all join in for the ride, offering something that was missing the last time around: a support system that can help improve results, help get through the tough moments and help celebrate the best ones.

“I might be the only one on the start line, but I didn’t get there by myself at all,” said Oksana Masters, who has earned 10 medals from four sports at Summer and Winter Paralympics. “So for them to be able to be there and experience it together, that’s that moment that I can’t wait for in Paris.”

It’s a common sentiment.

“I just look forward to having friends and family and the people on the journey with you being able to be part of it. That’s the most exciting thing — crossing the line and being able to look up and see the ones you care about,” said Alise Willoughby, who qualified for her fourth Olympics in BMX racing. “It was really difficult in Tokyo to not have the network. It felt like taking it back to a local night at racing, when you were a kid, where you might hear one parent yelling for their kid real loud.”

At the Olympics and Paralympics, ‘You’re doing it for the people you love’

Yes, winning a medal is the goal. That’s what pushes the swimmers and sprinters, the gymnasts and judokas, and everyone else, during the long hours of training and the years it takes to get to an Olympic level.

But there are other motivations.

“You’re not doing it for money. You’re not doing it for fame. You’re doing it for the people you love. You’re doing it for your country. You’re doing it for yourself, as well. You’re doing it for your teammates, your team, the team behind the team,” said Maggie Steffens, a three-time gold medal winner in water polo. “Family means everything to me. My mom, my dad and my three older siblings really (challenge) me, (teach) me like they’re the real coaches. Your family, they’re the real cheerleaders; they’re the ones who are sponsoring you. … And it’s almost like: I wish they could be wearing water polo caps right there with me and getting to experience that as well.”

That sentiment is why Megumi Field, an 18-year-old artistic swimmer, talks about going to the Olympics as “my dream … but also theirs.”

Which also might explain why so many with connections to Olympians are excited to travel to France this summer, particularly after the lack of a shared experience in 2021.

Ben Hallock, the U.S. men’s water polo captain, described it this way: “Everyone’s like, ‘I’m booking! I’m coming!’”

The same people who support Olympians can create distractions, too

Having a large group on hand could lead to a sense of needing to succeed for everyone else, which might be inspiring.

Or, possibly, a burden.

“I do owe it to anyone who supports me — my sponsors, my friends, my family, my coach — to do my best and medal, essentially,” said Gabby Thomas, a sprinter who collected a bronze in the 200 meters in Tokyo and made the U.S. team in that event again for Paris.

Andrew Capobianco, a diver heading to his second Olympics, is hoping Mom and Dad will make it to France, along with his twin and another brother, two diving coaches from when he was a kid, and his old gymnastics coach.

Which would be terrific because, Capobianco said, “They all had a huge hand in what I’m doing.”

And yet …

“It’s almost like a double-edged sword, in a way. Last time, having no people there created less distractions, for sure. And so I was kind of able to just focus on what I needed to do,” he explained. “But this time is going to be a lot different. There are going to be distractions. There’s going to be a lot more hype and excitement there. And so for me, I’m not really someone who thrives in that environment. I like feeling it, but I also need to stay pretty even-keeled. If I get too excited or too down low, then my performance might suffer.”

Support for Olympians comes in various ways

This is also a way for the ones who have been providing support — emotional, financial or otherwise — to see the end result of years of sacrifice.

Victor Montalvo, a breakdancer who competes under the name B-Boy Victor, recalls his father building a studio in their backyard for him and his siblings “because he wanted us to stay out of trouble.”

“He didn’t have money for rent, but he somehow found a way to borrow money to create this studio,” Montalvo said. “He also bought me my first passport … to go to one of the events I used to look up to when I was younger. And he didn’t have money for that, either.”

Another breaker, Sunny Choi — aka B-girl Sunny — used to think she could do everything on her own, but now realizes the love and trust of those around her makes a difference.

“On the days when it’s tough to get out of bed,” she said, “they’re there for you.”

That’s why Choi is thrilled to bring a “big squad” to Paris for her sport’s Olympic debut: her mother and father, three brothers with their significant others, four nieces, her boyfriend, her agent, a strength coach and a massage therapist.

Maybe even more.

“Somebody once said to me: ‘Imagine winning something, and then you walk off and you have no one to tell,’” Choi said. “So having everyone there — win or lose — is just going to be so amazing.”

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

By HOWARD FENDRICH and EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writers

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