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Nation & World

Deaf-Blind Athlete Quits Team USA After She's Told She Can't Bring A Care Assistant

Swimmer Becca Meyers says she's skipping the Tokyo Paralympics because she wouldn't be able to have a personal care assistant with her. The Rio gold medalist is seen here at an event in 2017.
Swimmer Becca Meyers says she's skipping the Tokyo Paralympics because she wouldn't be able to have a personal care assistant with her. The Rio gold medalist is seen here at an event in 2017.

Becca Meyers, a swimmer seen as a favorite to bring gold home from Tokyo, has canceled plans to compete in the Paralympics after being told she can't bring a personal care assistant to Japan. Meyers is deaf and blind. U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) officials say they don't have space for her to bring an aide because of coronavirus restrictions on athletic delegations.

"I've had to make the gut-wrenching decision to withdraw from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics," Meyers said Tuesday in a statement posted on her Facebook page. "I'm angry, I'm disappointed, but most of all, I'm sad to not be representing my country."

Meyers, 26, says officials have not taken her and other athletes' needs into account. She won three gold medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics — but the experience also left her deeply shaken. In strange new surroundings, she struggled to accomplish essential tasks on her own, such as finding the athletes' dining hall.

Since then, her mother, Maria Meyers, has accompanied her at competitions as a personal care assistant. But after being told her mother can't join her in Tokyo, Meyers opted out.

"I would love to go to Tokyo," Meyers told The Washington Post, which first reported her withdrawal. "Swimming has given me my identity as a person. I've always been Becca the Swimmer Girl. I haven't taken this lightly. This has been very difficult for me. [But] I need to say something to effect change, because this can't go on any longer."

All signs had been pointing to Meyers turning in a special performance in Tokyo. She has set new world records in recent years. Last month, she was celebrating dominance at the Paralympic trials, where she secured a spot on Team USA. Tokyo was set to be her third Paralympics.

Meyers, who was born with Usher syndrome, has thrived at sport's elite level. Because of the genetic disorder, she is deaf (and is aided by cochlear implants). She often relies on lip-reading, but her eyesight continues to deteriorate — and because everyone in Tokyo will be wearing masks, her ability to understand others would be hampered.

Rick Adams, the USOPC's chief of sport performance and national governing body services, has told the Meyerses that while he empathizes with them, Tokyo organizers have limited delegations to athletes and essential staff.

The USOPC told Meyers that the 34 athletes on the Paralympic swim team would be supported by one dedicated personal care assistant (PCA), along with six coaches. Nearly a third of the swimmers are visually impaired, according to Meyers.

The Meyers family says the situation is untenable and must change. They also believe the USOPC has held firm on its position to avoid a rush of athletes attempting to add their own PCAs to the delegation.

Meyers, who lives in a suburb between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., has been training with the Nation's Capital Swim Club, which launched the Olympic careers of stars such as Katie Ledecky and Tom Dolan. There, Meyers has trained under famed coach Bruce Gemmell.

"Your heart just breaks for her," Gemmell told the Post. "It seems to me if our focus is athletes first, which it should be but which it isn't always — if athletes first is what we're doing, then we as a USOPC, we need to do better. We must do better."

"Becca has been forced to make a decision that no Paralympian should ever have to make and Speedo fully supports" her choice, the swimwear company said in a statement sent to NPR. It added that it will "continue to stand alongside Becca and support her journey and all that makes her an inspiring role model for the next generation of swimmers."

The Tokyo Paralympics will start on Aug. 24 and run through Sept. 5.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 20, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Bruce Gemmell's last name as Gemmel.