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100 day countdown to Tokyo Olympics begins and NW athletes are excited to go

U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe of Seattle is set to become a three-time Olympian. She and her teammates earned gold at the 2012 London Games.
Joel Solomon
Flickr, 2012 -
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe of Seattle is set to become a three-time Olympian. She and her teammates earned gold at the 2012 London Games.

The 100 day countdown to the opening ceremony of the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics begins Wednesday. Yes, the summer games are proceeding amid an ongoing global pandemic. Olympic hopefuls and Pacific Northwest athletes already picked for Team USA invariably said they are eager to go.

"I'm just really excited that the Olympics are going to happen," said gymnast Jade Carey. The Oregon State University freshman is a likely selection for the U.S. Olympic squad at the gymnastics team trials in St. Louis in late June.

"I think we're all excited about heading to Tokyo finally, after a year's delay," echoed U.S. women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe of Seattle, during an online press conference hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Japan fared much better than most developed nations during the first year of the pandemic, but vaccination efforts are lagging. New cases of COVID-19 have risen sharply since mid-March.

The onset of what appears to be a fourth wave caused the governors of Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa to implement stricter virus control measures as of Monday, including curtailed business hours for bars and restaurants. With the pandemic still not under control in many parts of the world, questioning about whether Japan should host the global sporting event continues at home and abroad.

But the International Olympic Committee and local organizers appear bound and determined to pull off the summer games from July 23 to August 8 and the subsequent Paralympic games.

The traditional Olympic torch relay is well underway in Japan. Detailed "playbooks" have been prepared to guide athletes, officials, broadcasters and sponsors through pre-arrival COVID-19 testing and health protocols on scene.

Last month, the Japanese government and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee announced that overseas sports fans and athletes' families will not be allowed into Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games due to "the COVID-19 situation."

U.S. women's national team soccer players said this development was incredibly sad, but added the impact was greater on their families than on the athletes themselves who are in many ways walled off and in an all business mindset during world competitions.

"Going to these events, business is first and foremost," said Crystal Dunn, who plays for the Portland Thorns when not with the national team. "Our families are there to support us, but they are usually having a grand old time without us."

Pandemic adaptations to training

Oregon-raised Olympic shot put champion Ryan Crouser rode out the pandemic in Fayetteville where he is a coach for the University of Arkansas track and field team.

"2020 was definitely a challenging year for a lot of people, but I feel like I have managed it to the best of my ability," the Rio Olympic gold medalist said during a Team USA media briefing. "It's definitely been a lot of improvising."

Crouser said he built his own portable shot put ring when COVID restrictions shut down access to the university athletic facilities. He said he commonly set up the portable ring beside an empty lot in view of users of a nearby jogging trail.

"I got some weird looks," Crouser said, recalling the sometimes "entertaining" interactions he had with passersby who apparently did not realize they were in the presence of the Olympic shot put distance record holder.

"People would come by and make comments like, 'Oh, how far are you throwing?'" he said.

Crouser grinned when he quoted one man's implausible comeback when told how far. "Oh, that's pretty good. I threw that far in high school," the stranger told Crouser.

On the cusp of the pandemic in early 2020, teenage paddler Nevin Harrison of Seattle moved across the country to Gainesville, Georgia, to begin working full-time with a two-time silver medalist canoe/kayak coach. They train at the 1996 Olympic venue of Lake Lanier.

Harrison, now 18, has qualified for the Tokyo Games in the 200-meter sprint canoe event. This will be the first time that women's canoe is contested at the Olympics.

"Obviously, having a pandemic was a horrible thing for our world," Harrison said. "But for me personally, it gave me a little bit of extra time to kind of digest what was happening to me."

She started competing and winning on the world stage at age 17. Harrison anticipated that the extra year of maturity would help her deal with the pressure of the Olympics, although she noted her competition has benefited from an extra year of preparation, too.

"It was really overwhelming to be a teenager and trying to understand who I am, but also having all this success in my sport coming so quickly," Harrison said.

Team USA likely well-stocked with Northwest athletes

The 2020 U.S. Olympic Team bound for Tokyo is expected to consist of more than 600 athletes. The largest component, track and field, has yet to be selected. The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field are scheduled in Eugene from June 18-27. It remains uncertain whether spectators will be able to buy tickets to see the team trials in person at Hayward Field because of the evolving pandemic.

Historically, alumni of the University of Oregon's powerhouse running program and local professional runners fill out a big chunk of the U.S. Olympic track roster. This year is likely no exception. The Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club in Beaverton, Brooks Beasts Track Club in Seattle and Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene all have deep rosters of middle-distance running talent.

The U.S. Olympic marathon team was determined at a race in Atlanta in early 2020. Sally Kipyego of Eugene, two-time Olympic medalist Galen Rupp of Portland and Bellingham native Jacob Riley punched their tickets to Tokyo there.

Galen Rupp of Portland qualified for his fourth Olympics by winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials last year. Here he is at the 2016 Olympic Track and Field Team Trials.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Galen Rupp of Portland qualified for his fourth Olympics by winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials last year. Here he is at the 2016 Olympic Track and Field Team Trials.

Sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis of Beaverton, the most decorated U.S. fencer of all time, has qualified for her fifth Olympics. The 36-year-old already has two golds and two bronze medals to her name, the first of which was earned at the 2004 Athens Games.

Veteran Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is a virtual lock to make her fifth Olympic basketball team. The spry 40-year-old has four gold medals to show for her prior efforts at the Olympics. The U.S. women's team coach recently said that earning anything less than another gold in Tokyo would represent failure.

The U.S. softball team on the road to Tokyo includes 2017 University of Washington grad Ali Aguilar and class of 2015 Oregon Duck Janie Reed.

The U.S. rowing team will be selected by June 6. Based on the strength of the University of Washington crew program, it is a good bet that some past Huskies will be stroking at the Olympics in the men's and women's Fours and Eights.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.