STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
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TOKYO, Japan – In the weeks leading up to the start of the Olympics, the prevailing thought was Tokyo would not be a fun place, or the kind of experience that could fulfill the dreams of the athletes who have come here from around the world to be part of the postponed 2020 Olympics Games.
But that, according to the athletes themselves, is not the case.
Thursday, with training wrapped up and the competition set to begin in the morning, the rowers at the Sea Forest Waterway rowing venue expressed gratitude for their host organizers and said they are excited to begin racing and enjoying their experience.
Yes, the pandemic remains a looming threat in Japan, and a state of emergency continues to exist keeping the multiple, and very expensive, venues empty of spectators.
And it is true that the Covid mitigation protocols are stringent. Contact tracing and daily health check apps are a tiring requirement. So, too, is the frequent testing and social distancing. But to listen to the athletes, the Olympics is about competition and being among the other athletes to share a single experience together.
Large crowds are not why they are here, they say.
And while the mitigation protocols are keeping a tight lid on the movements of the athletes and staff, organizers, volunteers, and the army of media that is part of the modern Olympics, the shared experience has not suffered.
“Absolutely not,” said Australian Sarah Hawe, who is racing in the women’s eight. “I don’t think it is diminished at all. At the end of the day, the racing is still the same. We’re still going to get from the start line to the finish line as quickly as possible and still to get to experience a lot of what the Olympics has to offer.
“The Japanese have just embraced the Olympics, and they have been kind, polite, and helpful, they’re just making it an even better experience than I expected,” she said.
Members of the U.S. team expressed the same sentiment.
This is Gevvie Stone’s third Games. She knows what it is like to row in front of a crowd. But the lack of fans has not spoiled her experience.
“Honestly, aside from masks everywhere, and plexiglass between seats in the dining hall, the feel of the village is similar to past Games. There’s the same excitement among the athletes and the same sense of awe spotting people from all over the world competing in all sorts of sports,” she said.
“The venue is meticulously prepared with air conditioning spaces for each team, plenty of ergs and bikes, tons of water stations. They even provided slings for washing and rigging and a giant fleet of bikes for coaches!
“Sadly, we don’t have too much interaction with the Japanese — only the ones working the Games in the village or at Sea Forest. Those I have met have been very friendly, warm, and helpful. They seem very excited to have us here, and the feeling is mutual. The women working in Casual Dining in the Village [where Japanese food only is served] are especially excited to share a bit of Japan with us foreigners.
“I am anticipating not much cheering at all given that there will be no spectators. The lack of noise won’t take away from the intensity of racing though! We’re all glad to be here and competing,” said Stone.
“This is my first experience,” said men’s eight coxswain Julian Venonsky. “But even given that, I don’t feel short-changed at all. There are a lot of protocols, there are a lot of rules we have to follow, but the organizers, the staff, have been super professional, super helpful, super nice. The atmosphere in the village is great, I don’t feel like my experience is being downgraded at all.
“I’m having a great time. The training is going awesome, that’s the best part of it,” he said.
Boatmate Ben Davison agreed. “It’s been pretty surreal this past week, seeing the infrastructure, and seeing everything together, being around all the other athletes. It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”
And for women’s lightweight double sculler Michelle Sechser, it’s been even more. The shared experience of being an Olympian and living among athletes from around the world in the Olympic Village was one of the things she was looking forward to the most.
“It’s even more incredible than I could have imagined,” she said. “I think knowing that it was going to be a really different year, with Covid protocols, quarantines, and bubbles, we sort of expected the worst.
“But so far everything that Japan, Tokyo, the IOC has put on has been above and beyond what we could imagine. The venue is gorgeous. The facilities back home at the village are incredible and have really great resources. Everything from the dining hall to the Team USA House. It’s been really nice.
“You see the fencers out sparring, you see the boxers out shadow boxing. You’ll see athletes who are very clearly in the athletics events here running these beautiful strides around the village. Just the small bits of getting to see other athletes focusing in, warming up, embracing their sport, it just brings us together in this whole Olympic spirit of everything we are all here trying to achieve,” she said.
And, Sechser said, the best is just about to begin. “I can’t wait to get to the line and start racing. That’s my favorite part of this.”
Sechser will have to wait for one more day.
Racing starts tomorrow for the men’s and women’s singles, the men’s and women’s doubles, and the men’s and women’s quads. The lightweight women’s double will not begin until Saturday.
The First to Race
While the heats begin Friday morning, the first to race in the regatta were the team alternates. Racing in the double and pair spare race were women’s alternates Vicky Opitz and Molly Bruggeman. They finished second.
Shout Out to Prival Hinkati
Single sculler Prival Hinkati will carry the flag of Benin in the Opening Ceremonies Friday night. Hinkati has been training in the U.S. under Reilly Dampeer, head coach of the Oklahoma City High Performance Center and is well known in the U.S. rowing community.
Line Up Change
The women’s eight lineup announced on the official naming date has changed. The new lineup has Kristine O’Brien stroking, Meghan Musnicki in seven-seat, Regina Salmons in six, Olivia Coffey in five, Brooke Mooney in four, Gia Doonan in three, Charlotte Buck in two, and Jessica Thoennes in bow.