Facing criticism for Paralympian’s withdrawal, USOPC defends athlete support system

TOKYO – Facing widespread outrage and political pressure over the withdrawal of swimmer Becca Meyers from the U.S. Paralympic team for Tokyo 2020 out of concern for her own safety and well-being, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee issued a new statement Wednesday outlining and defending the support it is providing its athletes during these pandemic-altered Games.

“The safety, well-being and positive experience of all Team USA athletes is our number one priority,” the USOPC statement said. “We take pride in being the best-prepared [national Olympic committee] and [national Paralympic committee] in the world, and that includes supporting all athletes as they navigate the excitement, and complexity, of the Olympic or Paralympic Games.”

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The statement came three days after Meyers, a 26-year-old deaf-blind swimmer and six-time Paralympic medalist, informed the USOPC of her decision to withdraw from Team USA. Meyers cited the fact she was denied the opportunity to bring a personal care assistant, which she needs to function in both competition and daily life, with her to Tokyo – and two days after The Washington Post published a story and interview with Meyers, in which she and her family were highly critical of the USOPC.

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“No one has ever asked me what I need,” Meyers told The Post regarding her conversations with the USOPC. “No one has ever asked me that question.”

Meyers was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that left her deaf since birth and has gradually robbed her of her sight. Her mother, Maria, has served as her full-time PCA and has accompanied her to competitions since 2017. Meyers’s request to bring her mother with her to Tokyo was denied, according to the USOPC, because of restrictions put in place by the Japanese government and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee to reduce the transmission of covid-19.

Meyers’s story sparked condemnation from fans, the community of advocates for disabled persons and several prominent political leaders.

Most notably, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., raised Meyers’s situation during a Senate hearing Tuesday, saying, “This is an outrage – and a preventable situation that should never have gotten to this point. I want the [USOPC] to work immediately to address this issue, and I want them to ensure that all of our athletes are able to compete safely at this summer’s games – including by providing them the basic supports that they need just to navigate the world.”

Among the Maryland political leaders who also expressed outrage at Meyers’s situation were Gov. Larry Hogan, R, and Sens. Ben Cardin, D, and Chris Van Hollen, D,, with Hogan tweeting, “It is shameful that after earning her rightful place, Becca is being deprived of her ability to compete in Tokyo. The [USOPC] should immediately reverse its decision.”

Meyers, however, told The Post her decision to withdraw was final, saying she had suffered from a lack of sleep and loss of appetite and had stopped training for Tokyo in recent weeks.

In its statement Wednesday, the USOPC explained the pandemic forced “a drastic reduction placed in the number of accredited support staff able to travel to Japan.”

“In the case of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, there is a designated Personal Care Assistant (PCA) assigned to the team,” the statement said. “This PCA has more than 27 years of coaching experience, including 11 years with para swimmers. Because of the complex nature of these games, the role of the PCA has been filled by a qualified staff member who is able to serve in dual roles and who can assist the team as a whole when needed. This PCA joins a staff of 10 additional accomplished swim professionals, all who have experience with blind swimmers; totaling 11 staff for 34 athletes.

“Beyond the coaching, team management, medical and personal care staff specific to U.S. Paralympics Swimming, the USOPC offers every athlete a robust portfolio of resources inclusive of sports medicine, athlete services and a newly created mental health program among others.”

Making decisions on how to reduce staff while addressing athletes’ needs, the statement said, “have not been easy, and we are heartbroken for athletes who are unable to have their previous support resources available.”

“We are confident in the level of support we will offer Team USA,” the statement said, “and look forward to providing them a positive athlete experience even in the most unprecedented times.”

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