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As Team USA athletes prepare for no families at Tokyo Olympics, one sport gets creative

Gymnast Aly Raisman in "Gold Medal Families."

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By CHRIS BUMBACA | USA Today | Published: May 8, 2021

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(Tribune News Service) — One of the more viral moments in recent Olympic history are the reactions of gymnast Aly Raisman's parents — father Rick and mother Lynn — during their daughter's routines, whether she was soaring between the uneven bars or balancing on a beam.

Family at the Olympics provides more than broadcast fodder for the viewers back home, though. The presence of that support system is often integral to the athlete not only during their hardest training days, but also on the biggest stage.

With no international spectators permitted at this summer's Tokyo Olympics (as  announced by the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers), Team USA athletes are confronting the reality of realizing their dreams with their most fervent supporters thousands of miles away.

While expected for some time now, it's still a gut punch — with an understanding there is a global health concern behind the decision.

"It's gonna suck not having friends and family there, but (I) totally understand," beach volleyball star April Ross said. "They can have parties and watch at home. So I'm keeping an open mind about it. Health is number one, obviously. Safety is number one."

"I think one of the things is definitely having that support group, my family or whoever is that person, to share that moment," Paralympic track and field runner Hunter Woodhall said. "But honestly, for the greater good and keeping people safe, we understand the sacrifices that have to be made."

Repeat Olympians and Paralympians have found solace in their family having the experience of attending a prior Games — like Woodhall, who won a silver and bronze medal with his loved ones on hand in Rio five years ago.

The family and friends section of the U.S. women's soccer team has built a reputation as a "traveling circus," as captain Becky Sauerbrunn put it. For the players, the international tournaments are a time to focus — the partying takes place on the periphery.

"I think our family and friends are probably more bummed," defender Crystal Dunn said. "We love them. We'll feel their support for sure."

There is a mental health aspect to account for, USOPC director of mental health services Jessica Bartley said.

"I think there might be some stress around friends and family not being present at the Games," Bartley said. "I know that we'll have some things that come up. We're just wanting to be very mindful of all of the different things, asking all of the questions, so that athletes know they are supported by a number of people on the team."

The uncertainties go beyond the absence of family members, friends and spouses; individual coaches, trusted nutritionists and other members of athletes "teams" likely won't be making the trip across the Pacific.

However, at least one Team USA qualifier will hopefully benefit from having family already in Japan.

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Sakura Kokumai, the first American to qualify in karate, a sport new to the Olympic program, was born in Hawaii and is Japanese-American. Her parents and brother live in Japan, making the 27-year-old an anomaly (she hopes) for the Tokyo Games. (Officials haven't announced yet how many domestic fans will be allowed inside competition venues.)

"There's so many people there that are waiting for me to visit and compete," Kokumai said. "So they were my motivation, the fact that I have people there as well and that I need to show up, that I need to be prepared and that I need to perform at my best."

A way for families to be involved

Not going to Tokyo at all is one way a Team USA governing body is navigating the Games.

USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said the organization will run operations out of Honolulu, Hawaii, throughout the Olympics.

Of course, having family on site in Hawaii is a byproduct of seeking a competitive advantage in terms of adjusting lifters' circadian rhythms.

"We want to give our athletes every tool in the toolbox," Andrews said. "Family is a big part of that."

Honolulu is currently a pre-approved testing site by the Japanese government for inbound travelers. Athletes, if they test negative for COVID-19, can be absorbed into the Olympic "bubble" upon arrival and remain there through competition.

Athletes will fly in a few days before their scheduled competition. In the case of qualifier Harrison Maurus, he'll be in Tokyo by the time his mother Tracey — who is part native Hawaiian — and father Jim arrive in Honolulu from their home in Washington.

They are a close family, Tracey told USA TODAY Sports, but Harrison wants to remain focused ahead of his lifts.

"To not go that extra step (to Tokyo) is a little heartbreaking," Tracey said. "At the same time, you have to step back. 'OK, it's really about him.'"

To create the feel of being on the ground at the Games, watch parties and celebrations for the opening and closing ceremonies will be held among the group in Hawaii.

Depending on the lifter's success (medalists have sponsor and media responsibilities), he or she will depart Tokyo one or two days after competition, according to the safety protocols.

The Maurus family had everything planned for a trip to Japan, but the alternative is almost as good, they said.

"Kudos to Phil for this solution, because that was going to be a pretty sad Olympic party here at home," Tracey quipped.

Or, as Jim Maurus says:

"Anytime you get to go to Hawaii is a good thing, right?"

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Contributing: Steve Gardner, USA TODAY

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Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic karate athlete Sakura Kokumai strikes a pose during a photo shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
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