Like so many 14 year olds around the world, James Wong watched swimming sensation, Michael Phelps, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with awe. Wong wanted to be Michael Phelps one day….albeit the one-armed version.
Born without a left arm, the native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia didn’t know anything about the Paralympics at the time. But his father found a grainy YouTube video of the men’s SB8 100m breaststroke finals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and pointed out one of the swimmers – Andreas Onea of Austria.
“My dad noticed Andreas was only a few years older than me, and he had a similar build,” said Wong. “He felt relatable. I watched how he swam in that video and tried to see how he was doing it. Basically, that video kind of helped set in stone the vision of what I wanted to achieve. Prior to this, I didn’t actually know what para sport even looked like.”
Eleven years later, Wong was at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. It was a tough time. He was jetlagged. He swam poorly. His chances of making the Tokyo2020 Paralympics were diminished. But he finally got to meet Onea, who was pleasantly surprised to meet Wong. After all, five other swimmers finished better than him at the finals during that competition, so he wondered why Wong liked Onea’s swimming so much.
But Wong then told Onea the story of the YouTube video in 2008. Onea said he was touched.
The Paralympics can have an impact on my life and on the world population. I realized that in 2019, when I was at the London world championships in swimming, and James told me that the first swimming competition he ever saw was the final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics on the 100-meter breaststroke. And this was the day, he told me, that he wanted to compete in the Paralympics, that he wanted to be a professional swimmer like Andreas Onea. I was emotionally impressed by the story when he told me. Without knowing me, because of me, just seeing me swim, he wanted to swim also.
Andreas Onea, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke SB8 at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, competed at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics. He did not medal this time, but Onea has developed a successful media career in television and print, as well as a motivational speaker. He understands how important it is for persons with disabilities, some 15% of the entire world population, to be given opportunities to lead fuller lives that help them approach their full potential.
“We are 15% of the world population,” said Onea. “In Austria, companies are looking for talent. They are fighting over the best talent for their workforce. This is a high potential pool that no one is tapping into. People think they will have problems with figuring out how to bring them into the workforce. These issues are things proven wrong. There are so many companies doing amazing things with people with disabilities.”
Wong told me that swimming gave him those opportunities.
In 2008, he was spotted by the national swimming head coach of Malaysia, Lewin Lim, and was told he had potential as a swimmer. Over the next 11 years, Wong was introduced to a whole new world of training, travel and competition. He competed for the first time in a tournament in Borneo, which was another part of Malaysia. But it could have been a foreign country as the people and the culture felt so different to Wong.
And when he came away with a gold and silver medal a the 2009 Asian Youth Games in Tokyo, Japan, he imagined one day winning Paralympic gold. Guangzhou in China, Berlin in Germany, Solo in Indonesia, Naypyidaw in Myanmar – Wong was going places he never could imagine.
In 2012, he moved to Australia. His parents thought it would be great if their son could get an education overseas. Because Wong’s hero, para-swimming champion, Matt Cowdrey, was from Australia, Wong looked down under and targeted the University of Adelaide, which was located relatively near the Norwood Swimming Club.
Wong worked hard to balance academic life and the rigors of training at the world-class level. At the 2014 Asian para Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wong finished 4th in the 50-meter Freestyle S8, behind the top two in the world, and another who was a finalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. And in 2016, he graduated from university.
Wong did not make the Malaysian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Wong has never competed in a Paralympics. But para-swimming changed his life.
The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships was his last major competition, but it gave him the credentials to apply for and receive permanent residence in Australia through a talent visa, not something that the Australian government hands out liberally.
Wong has continued his studies and is pursuing his masters in accounting and finance at the University of Adelaide, which he hopes to leverage into an opportunity at a Big Four accounting firm after he graduates in 2022. He’s happy about his future, something that he owes to swimming.
“Through swimming I met an amazing number of people I would not have met otherwise,” he said. “Without it, I’d have a completely different life.”
Inside the cool and controlled confines of the Ariake Aquatic Center, temperatures are a comfortable 27 to 28 degrees Celsius. Swimmers and divers don’t give a thought to their environs.
But in the Tokyo2020 triathlon and marathon swimming competitions, athletes are freestyle swimming in the mouth of Tokyo Bay, where water temperature and quality are close to levels deemed unsafe.
“We are literally in the lap of the weather gods,” Dr David Gerrard, one of 10 members of the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) sports medicine committee at Tokyo2020. He is also one of perhaps a handful of people to be accredited at both the 1964 and 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as Dr. Gerrard was a swimmer on Team New Zealand here 57 years ago.
“If water temperature gets above 31 degrees Celsius, we are legally bound to say it exceeds the safety levels, and the event cannot proceed,” explained Dr. Gerrard. He went on to say that special paddle wheel devices floating on pontoons are helping to circulate the cooler water from the bottom of the bay to the top, and that the marathon swimming competitions, which will take place on August 4 and 5, will start at 6:30 AM, when water temperature should be at its coolest.”
Dr. Gerrard was part of a research team at the University of Otago (New Zealand) that measured the impact of sustained high water temperatures on swimmers.
“The human body can’t sustain a core body temperature in excess of 39 or 40 degrees Celsius.” he said. “This results in hyperthermia, or heat stress, with potential life-threatening effects. It’s also critical to replace fluids and electrolytes which are lost through sweat.”
In marathon swimming, athletes have the opportunity to replenish fluids and electrolytes at feeding stations along the course. Coaches on the “feeding pontoons” also observe their swimmer for any unusual behavior that might indicate the onset of hyperthermia.
If water temperature is Scylla, then water quality is Charybdis.
Apparently, Tokyo Bay stinks.
The drainage systems for rainwater and sewage are the same, which on the average day is not an issue because the sewage is treated before entering the drainage system. However, when there is a typhoon or a sustained rainfall in Tokyo, the treatment system can be overwhelmed and untreated sewage gets swept into the Bay. Years of that have resulted in polluted waters.
In order to make Tokyo Bay safe enough for competitors during the Olympics and Paralympics, measures have been taken: implementing triple-layer screens to prevent pollutants from flowing into the Bay, as well as laying of sand at the bottom of the Bay making it easier for water-cleaning organisms to thrive.
Dr. Gerrard explained that event organizers monitor the bacterial count of E. coli and enterococci, bacterial markers of water quality. And if the water exceeds standards stipulated by the World Health Organization, the swimmers would be at risk of gastroenteritis, an infection of the digestive system, which could induce malaise, nausea and vomiting, and if not treated, dehydration.
However, he assured me that under current conditions, swimmers would have to drink a lot of Tokyo Bay to get that sick. He said that he gets daily reports of Tokyo Bay’s bacterial count, and is not concerned. “Right now, it’s a safe level. We’re very satisfied.”
Shortly after that, the rain came pouring down on Tokyo.
On the one hand, the rain is good for water temperature, he said. But on the other hand, there could also be some waste water runoff into the Bay, he added with a shrug.
Will the weather gods cooperate for marathon swimming? We will see.
It is time to remember Olympians who participated at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and passed away in 2020. I’ve been able to identify 37 such Olympians, a few I knew personally. They were medalists and participants from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of sport. And in this annus horribilis, several were victims to coronavirus. They will be missed.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by last name.
Csaba Ali swam for team Hungary at the 1964 Toyo Olympics, in the men’s 4×200 meter freestyle relay as well as the 400 meter individual medley. He passed away on December 27, 2020 at the age of 74.
Fernando Atzori won the gold medal in flyweight boxing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. From a small town called Ales in Sardinia, Italy. Atzori taught himself boxing, went on to be an Olympic champion as well as a European flyweight champion as a professional in 1967, defending his championship nine times before losing it in 1972. After a long illness, Atzori died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 78.
Kazim Ayvaz, three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Turkey, died on January 18, 2020 in Heisingborg, Sweden. A native of Rize, Ayvaz won the gold medal in lightweight Greco-Roman wrestling for Turkey at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also competed at the 1960 and 1968 Summer Olympics. Ayvaz continued to wrestle until 1969 and was inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in September 2011. He was 81.
Cliff Bertrand was a sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, and he was a fellow New Yorker, running track at New York University, where he got his master’s degree. He got his Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree at Queens College. Bertrand ran in the men’s 200 meters and 4×400 meters relay team for Trinidad and Tobago at both the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Bertrand died in Long Island City, NY on November 28, 2020.
Heinfried Birlenbach was a shot putter from West Germany, a three-time Olympian who competed at the Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich Summer Olympics. According to his profile, Birlenbach was “an educated draftsman, then gas station attendant, petrol station owner, owner of a sauna company, and eventually became an insurance businessman,” in addition to being an “avid discus thrower and weightlifter.” The man who was born in the city of Birlenbach, died there on November 11, 2020, a few weeks from turning 80.
Tony Blue was a member of the Australian track and field team, competing in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. He also competed in the 4×400 meters relay in Tokyo. He would go on to get his medical degree and practice medicine in Brisbane. The doctor from Dubbo died on October 1, 2020. He was 84 years old.
Miguelina Cobián of Cuba passed away on December 1, 2019 in Havana. She was 77 years old. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she was the first Cuban ever to reach an Olympic sprint final, finishing fifth in the 100 meters. She was also on the Cuban 4×100 meter relay team that took silver behind the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It is said that the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek discovered her, and actually trained her early in her career.
Ernesto Contreras was a cyclist representing Argentina, who raced in three Olympics, from 1960 to 1968. Competing in the 4000 meter Team Pursuit in all three Olympiads, as well as the 100 kilometer Team Time Trial in 1968. Contreras was one of Argentina’s best known cyclists. He was born in Medrano, and died in Mendoza on October 25, 2020. He was 83.
Manuel da Costa was a competitor in the 50-meter rifle, prone, representing Portugal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a 44-year-old Olympian, who didn’t start shooting until he was 41 years old. He died on April 20, 2020, 93 years young.
Osvaldo Cochrane Filho was a member of the Brazilian water polo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Vitoria, Brazil, Filho passed away at the age of 87 on December 9, 2020 from the effects of COVID-19.
Armando “Chaparro” Herrera was the captain of the Mexican national basketball team who led his team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. The man from Juarez passed away on October 14, 2020, at the age of 89.
William Hill was one of 39 members of the Hong Kong team that went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hill ran in the men’s 200 and 400 meter sprints, and also had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way through Asia into Hong Kong. He was 75 years old when he passed away on July 27, 2020 in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong.
Wolfgang Hoffmann won the silver medal in the middleweight division of judo for Germany, when that sport debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Hoffmann studied in Japan and taught judo for many years, publishing a book, Judo – Basics of TachiWaza and Ne-Waza, which he co-wrote with judoka Mahito Ohgo. Hoffmann died on March 12, 2020 in his hometown of Cologne, Germany, a couple of weeks shy of his 79th birthday.
The greatest athlete in the world in 1964 was Willi Holdorf, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, Holdorf was a humble man who led a powerful German team that took 3 of the top 6 spots in the decathlon, overcoming the favorite from Taiwan, C. K. Yang, as explained in my blog post here. Holdorf passed away on July 5, 2020, at the age of 80.
Mariya Itkina competed on the Soviet Union women’s track and field team in three Olympics from 1956 to 1964. As stated in her profile, she “has the unfortunate distinction of having placed fourth at the Olympics the most times of any athlete, four, without ever winning a medal.” She did so in the 4×100 meter relay at the Melbourne Games, in the 100-meter, 200-meter races as well as the 4×100 meter relay at the Rome Olympics. Itkina died on December 1, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus at the age of 88.
Alexander Ivanitsky won the gold medal in the heavyweight freestyle wrestling competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After retiring from wrestling, Ivanitsky was a sports journalist until 1991, ending his career as chief sports editor for the USSR State Committee on Television and Radio. He oversaw the broadcast of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is said he died on July 22, 2020 after he went into a forest to forage for mushrooms. He was 82.
György Kárpáti of Budapest, Hungary was a four-time Olympian, winning three gold medals as a member of the powerhouse Hungarian men’s water polo team, including the infamous “Blood-in-the-Water” finals when Hungary defeated the USSR in the finals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Kárpáti won his third gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, after which he also got his coaching degree. As coach, he helped lead Hungary to a gold medal the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Kárpáti died on June 23, 2020, a week before turning 85.
Dr. István Kausz, a two-time Olympian who won the gold medal in men’s team épée for Hungary at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After obtaining his medial degree, he went on to become the team doctor for the Hungarian swim team and assisting as a member of the medical team for the Hungarian aquatic team from the 1972 to the 2012 Olympiads. Kausz passed away on June 3, 2020 in Budapest at the age of 87.
Alfred Kucharczyk was a Polish gymnast who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Representing the Radlin Gymnastic Club, Kucharczyk was an active coach and tutor to other gymnasts, including 2008 Olympic vault champion Leszek Blanik. The native of Radlin died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 87.
Gergely Kulcsár was Hungary’s greatest javelin thrower, winning a silver and 2 bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1960 to 1972. Kulcsár was Hungary’s flagbearer in the opening ceremonies in Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich. He continued to coach until 1980, seeing one of his athletes, Miklós Németh win gold in the javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Games. Kulcsár died on August 12, 2020 at the age of 84.
Matti Laakso was a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler from Iimajoki, Finland. A welterweight, Laakso competed at the 1960, 1964 and 1972 Olympiads. His brother, Martti Laakso, was a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, and they competed together at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A police officer throughout his career, Laakso was one of the most dominant wrestlers in Finland, winning 24 Finnish titles. He died on November 3, 2020. He was 81 years old.
Jānis Lūsis of Jelgava, Latvia passed away on April 29, 2020 in Riga. He was 80. The top men’s javelin thrower in the world in the 60’s and 70’s, Lūsis was a four-time Olympian from 1964 to 1976, winning bronze, gold and silver at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively for the USSR. A world record holder in the javelin toss, Lūsis was married to Elivira Ozolina, who competed in the women’s javelin at the 1960 (gold) and 1964 Olympics. Their son, Voldemārs Lūsis, was an Olympic javelin thrower as well, competing at the2000 and 2004 Olympics for Latvia.
Dick Lyon was a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and a two-time Olympian. He was in the boat for the US men’s coxless fours that competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and won the bronze medal despite overcoming near disaster In the heats. The native Californian, Lyon passed away on July 8, 2020, a month before he would have turned 80. I had the great honor of interviewing Dick for my book on the Tokyo Olympics, and I wrote about his passing here. I am so sorry he is no longer with us.
A legend of long-distance walking, Paul Nihil, passed away on December 15, 2020 in Gillingham, England. The native of Colchester became Great Britain’s first male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympiads when he raced in the 20-km walk at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Twelve years earlier at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nihil took the silver medal in the 50-kilometer walk. A man who race walked into his seventies, Nihil died at the age of 81 after contracting COVID-19.
Leonid Osipov was a three-time Olympic water polo athlete who won bronze, silver and gold respectively at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympiads on the team from the Soviet Union. He was 77 when he died on November 5, 2020.
Maria Ilwicka-Chojnacka-Piątkowska was a three-time Olympian who represented Poland in Athletics at the 1952, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Multi-talented, Piatkowska competed in the 4×100 meters relay at all three Olymmpiads, as well as the long jump in Helsinki and Rome and the 80-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Games. Piatkowski fell victim to COVID-19 and passed away on December 19, 2020 at the age of 88.
Gunter Pfaff was a four-time Olympic canoeist, who won a bronze medal for Austria in the kayak doubles with Gerhard Seibold. He rowed kayaks in singles, doubles and fours from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and served as the flagbearer for Team Austria during the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Pfaff died on November 10 in Garsten, Austria on November 10. He was 81 years old.
Doug Rogers won the silver medal in judo’s heavyweight class in the Olympic debut of that sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A Canadian from Truro, Nova Scotia, he moved to Japan when he was 19 to learn the martial arts among the best, studying under legendary judoka, Masahiko Kimura. His life in Japan is portrayed in a short film called “Judoka.” Rogers competed again at the 1972 Munich Games when judo resumed as an Olympic sport. I never interviewed Rogers, although I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. I really wished I had met him. Rogers passed away on July 20, 2020 at the age of 79.
Huba Rozsnyai was a sprinter on the Hungarian men’s track team, and ran in the 100 meter individual as well as the 4×100 meters relay competitions. On December 4, 2020, Rozsnvai passed away from the effects of COVID-19. He was 77.
Haydar Shonjani represented Iran as a swimmer in the men’s 100 meter freestyle at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first ever Iranian to compete as a swimmer in the Olympics. He returned to the Games in 1976 on the Iranian water polo team. Shonjani passed away on November 8, 2020 at the age of 74.
Balbir Singh was on the field hockey team that restored golden glory back to India at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Singh also competed on the 1968 team that took bronze. The man from Sansarpur, Punjab was a member of the Punjab Police, rising to Deputy Superintendent of Police, and retiring as Deputy Inspector General in 2001. Singh died on February 28, 2020 in his hometown at the age of 77.
I interviewed Janell Smith Carson for my book. She was 17 when she ran in the women’s 400-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although she ran an American record of 53.7 seconds in the Olympics, she could not get to the finals. Born in Texas, she grew up in Kansas where she set the world record for the indoor 400 meters and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She told me that she was recruited by famed track coach Ed Temple to run for Tennessee State, but Smith did not want to leave home. Smith passed away on July 25, 2020 after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
Three-time Olympian, Per Svensson won the silver medal in light-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Sollefteå, Svensson would go on to represent Sweden at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. He passed away in Sundsvall on December 17, 2020 at the age of 77.
Kinuko Tanida Idogawa was a member of Japan’s historic gold-medal winning women’s volleyball team that defeated the Soviet team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time volleyball was an Olympic sport. That match was one of the most watched sporting events in Japanese history. One of the famed “Witches of the Orient,” Tanida was known for her strong spikes, and contributed greatly to the team’s gold-medal victory. A native of Osaka, Tanida passed away on December 4, 2020 at the age of 81. I was proud to share the screen with her in the History Channel documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which covers the history of Tokyo since the end of the war to 2020.
Juan Torruella sailed in four straight Olympiads, from 1964 to 1976, representing Puerto Rico. A graduate of the Boston University law school, Torruella served associate judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico before serving as US federal judge for over forty years since President Gerald Ford appointed him as a federal judge to the district court in Puerto Rico. As stated in his profile, “his most publicized case came when Torruella ruled on the appeal of 2013 Boston Marathon bomber and murderer Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which overturned his death sentence.” Torruella died on October 26, 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 87.
Wojciech Zablocki completed in four Olympiads as a fencer for Poland. After capturing silver medals on the Men’s sabre team at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Games, he ended his Olympic career at Tokyo with a bronze medal on the Polish sabre team. Zablocki was an architect who designed sports facilities as well as a watercolor artist, and married a well-known actress and activist, Alina Janowska, who passed away in 2017. Zablocki died on December 5, 2020 a day before his 90th birthday.
Slaven Zambata was the captain of the Yugoslavia football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Although his team finished sixth in the tournament, the man from Sinj starred with Dinamo Zagreb, leading them to four Yugslav Cups. One of the most prolific scorers in his country’s football history, Zambata died on October 29, 2020 in Zagreb, at the age of 80.
Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.
I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.
Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”
Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”
It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”
When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”
Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.
She grew in the heart of the ghetto in Mesa, Arizona, with dreams of making a million dollars, but little else.
I was four years old, watching my first Olympic Games, and looking at the gymnasts, and being thrilled with them, how powerful and beautiful and graceful they were. And I had the thought, ‘they’re little like me. If they can do it, I can do it.’
Today, Breeja Larson is an Olympic champion, with a life of lessons for future Olympians, and the rest of us. In fact, in this age of CoronaVirus, lock downs and social distancing, Larson is expanding her network and influence virtually. Working with Airbnb, Larson offers an online program called “Goal Setting with Olympic Gold Medalist,” an intimate and stimulating experience with a world-class athlete.
Larson won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 London Olympics on a powerful Team USA swim squad which took nearly half of the 34 gold medals up for grab in swimming. One of those gold medals went to Larson who swam in the preliminary heat in the 4×100 medley relay for Team USA, swimming one of the fastest breaststroke legs amidst the 16 teams, ensuring her team would compete in the finals. Although Larson didn’t swim in the finals, her teammates set a world record and got them all gold medals.
Larson shared her story on Zoom with 8 participants who joined from California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina and Tokyo. They were able to hear her Olympic journey, a powerful story of perseverance.
As Larson grew to 6 feet tall, she realized she wasn’t going to realize her dream as an Olympic gymnast. But she knew sport was a way for her to get a college education, and that she would need a scholarship to accomplish that. She saw swimming as an opportunity, and convinced a local Mesa swim club to allow her to swim for free for 10 months. Her coach was encouraging, and asked her of her Olympic dreams. When Larson explained she used to harbor hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast, her coach opened her eyes to the world of possibility.
Swimming is like gymnastics. Every time you dive in the pool, you have to have the perfect angle, grace and power. Every flip turn has to have the perfect landing. It’s a beautiful dance routine in the water.
That was the moment Larson’s mindset shifted, when she learned that every time you look at something as a negative, you can change the mental angle and see it as a positive. “Mindset has a very strong hold over your performance,” she said.
Larson built up her savings in high school lifeguarding, making sandwiches at Subway, cleaning homes, even collecting aluminum cans while training hard as a swimmer. And her hard work paid off when she got a partial scholarship to Texas A&M University. But life as a student athlete was tough, particularly since she had to embark on a training regimen to make up for years of training that most of her teammates had already compiled.
The workload as a student athlete was just crushing me. And one day, two months into the academic year, I remember going into the cafeteria, trying to eat my food, and the biggest pile of bricks just fell on me. I felt I was about to crack. Everything felt so hard and I was breaking down.
She sent a long message to her mother – “a pathetic rant” as she called it – and said essentially, “I’m going to drown. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to quit. I want to go home. I’m not good enough.” And as Larson wallowed in self pity, her mother sent a her a very simple life-changing message.
This is what it feels like to be a champion.
In this Airbnb Experience, Larson shared that lesson as well as several others she has learned over the years. In addition to the critical impact of having a positive mindset, she talked at length about how important it is to set audacious goals, to chunk the big goal into smaller tactical goals, be intensively self aware about what you want and why, and get objective feedback from others. She is articulate, practical and most of all, inspiring.
And now, at the age of 27, Larson is working hard to apply those lessons and make the team again for Tokyo next year. Competing as a pro, she actuallytook first leading wire-to-wire in a 100-meter breaststroke finalsof the Phillips 66 National Championships on August 3, 2019, only 9 months ago, giving her hope of returning to the Olympics in 2021. But then COVID-19 entered the picture.
The pools are all closed. Coaches don’t have jobs. But the athlete in my head is saying, ‘keep going. You got this. 16 more months. Just chunk it out. Figure it out up here and the rest of it will take care of itself.’ But if I choose to swim, everything else goes on hold. I can’t eat anything with sugar. (Assuming concerns of the pandemic ease) I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere with my boyfriend or go to music festivals. I’d miss a lot of summer weddings.
However, if she doesn’t make the attempt, Larson said she would “have this empty hole. I want to hang up my goggles after my last race, instead of saying the pandemic happened and I moved on.”
So against all odds, Larson stays positive, focused on her goal. Will we see her in Tokyo in the summer of 2021? Maybe you should attend her Airbnb Experience over the next few months and ask her yourself. She’ll be happy to talk with you.
He powered through his long walk, entering the National Stadium first and alone, winning gold in the 20-kilometer walk race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And when Brit Kenneth Matthews reached his goal, his wife Sheila was there to greet him with a joyous hug. She continued to walk with her husband around the track as the crowd cheered. The great race walker from Birmingham died on June 2, 2019. He was 85.
Two-time Olympian and two-time medalist in sailing for USA, Lowell North passed away on June 2, 2019. He was 89. The Springfield, Massachusetts native was one of three crewmen who competed in the Dragon class competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which won Bronze. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, North partnered with Peter Barrett to take gold in the Star class competition.
Günter Perleberg was paddler who won the silver medal in the kayak K-4 1000 meter competition as a member of the United Team of Germany at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, adding to his gold medal in the K-1 4×500 meter relay won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. An East German from Brandenburg an der Havel, Perleberg defected to West Germany via Austria in 1963, this making his selection for the Unified German team a topic of animosity between the Cold War powers. Perleberg passed away on August 1, 2019, at the age of 84.
American Roy Saari was selected for two different sports for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic: swimming and water polo. Having to choose one, Saari chose swimming where he won silver in the 400-meter individual medley, and gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay. That relay team set a world record. He also held the world record in the 1500-meter freestyle. His father was the famed water polo coach, Urho Saari. Saari passed away on December 30, 2018 at the age of 63.
One of the great Belgian cyclists of the 1960s, Patrick Sercu of Roeselare, West Flanders, took gold in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Racing primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Sercu won over 1,200 track and road races in his career, including 88 championships in the grueling Six-Day tournaments.
One of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, Sir Peter Snell, passed away on December 12, 2019 at the age of 80. Snell’s heroics started with his gold medal triumph in the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics. But at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the native of Opunake, New Zealand became the only Olympian since 1920 to win gold in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter distances in the same Olympics.
Yoshihisa Yoshikawa (吉川貴久) was the Chief of Police for Yawata Nishi in his home prefecture of Fukuoka, Japan. But he was more well known as the four-time Olympian, who won bronze medals in men’s free pistol 50 meters at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Yoshikawa was 83, when he passed away on October 12, 2019, nearly 55 years to the day when he won his second bronze medal in Tokyo.
Haripal Kaushik was a three-time Olympian and won two gold medals on the dominant India field hockey teams of the 20th century. An assistant captain of the team, he witnessed India’s string of six consecutive Olympic championships end at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Pakistan took gold, but was on the field when India defeated Pakistan at Komazawa Olympic Stadium in 1964. Karushik served in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, and after the Olympics had a career as a field hockey administrator and television commentator. He passed away on January 25, 2018 at the age of 83.
Károly Palotai was midfielder on the Hungarian football club, Győri ETO FC, and was on the strong Hungarian national team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Palotai went on to a long and successful career as a referee, on the field officiating at the 1974, 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cups, as well as the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Palotai died on February 3, 2018 at the age of 82.
Durwold Knowles (right)
Durward Knowles was a sailor from the Bahamas who, with Cecil Cooke, won the first Olympic gold medal for the Bahamas in the Star class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Nassau died on February 24, 2018, nearly 4 months into his 100th birthday. Knowles was an 8-time Olympian, first representing Great Britain in 1948 before representing the Bahamas from 1952. It was thought that the 1972 Munich Games was his last, until Knowles returned to competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, becoming one of only four Olympics to have competed over a span of 40 years. Knowles was, at the age of 80, easily the oldest competitor at the Seoul Olympics and was the Bahamas flag bearer in the opening ceremony.
Sven-Olov Sjödelius was a two time gold medalist in the K-2 1000-meter canoe event representing Sweden at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The native of Svärta, Sweden. Trained as a mechanic, Sjödelius also served as a member of the Swedish Olympic Committee. He died on March 29, 2018 at the age of 84.
Janice Cameron (née Murphy) won a silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on the Australian 4×100 freestyle swim team. The native of Sydney, Australia went on to coach swimming in Australia, Canada and the US before settling into a long career as coach and sports administrator in New Zealand. She was appointed national coach for the New Zealand swim team in 2001. Cameron passed way on April 30, 2018 at the age of 71.
Irena Szewińska, née Kirszenstein, passed away on June 29, at the age of 72. The native of Warsaw, Kirszenstein was one of the greatest women athletes of the 20th century, the only sprinter in history to have held the world record in the 100, 200 and 400-meters. She competed in five Olympics from 1964 to 1980, winning three golds, two silver and two bronzes in the sprints and the long jump. The “Athlete of the 20th Century in Poland” was a busy sports administrator from the mid 1980s, serving on the IAAF, the EAA as well as the IOC. She was also a stage actress before focusing on athletics, once portraying Ophelia in Hamlet.
Hans Günter Winkler Hans Günter Winkler was an equestrian show jumper who appeared in six consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1972, compiling five old medals, a silver and a bronze, primarily in team jumping. Representing Germany, and then West Germany, Winkler won his sole individual jumping medal at his Olympic debut at the 1956 Stockholm Games where his mare, Halla, carried him to victory despite a painful groin strain. Winkler went on to a successful career as a representative in a pharmaceutical company and a US mail-order company. Winkler passed away on July 9 at the age of 91.
Some of the famous people in the world have tattoos. The US tattoo industry alone is a $1.5 billion business. And many of the 20 million plus foreigners visiting Japan every year are sporting tattoos. But as some visitors are surprised to learn, their tattoos are sometimes frowned upon, and result in being turned away from the hot springs and beaches of Japan.
Rugby World Cup Organizers are excited about the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament coming to Japan, and have been eager to show respect to their hosts next year. At the one-year-to-go milestone, tournament director Alan Gilpin stated in a press conference that rugby players with tattoos need to cover up their body ink.
“We will make (Japanese) people aware around the facilities that players will use in the country that people with tattoos in a Rugby World Cup context are not part of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia,” added Gilpin.
It’s a socially sensitive statement as there is generally a negative attitude of Japanese towards tattoos – a common rationale being that Yakuza were commonly associated with tattoos. In fact, there is a law against tattoo artists without a medical license, which has been enforced. And signs at pools, hot springs and public beaches commonly explain in multiple languages that people with tattoos are prohibited from entry, or at least asked to cover them up.
The Japan Travel Association (JTA), eager to avoid private establishments from kicking surprised foreign guests out of their establishments, have encouraged hot spring proprietors to relax their rules against people with tattoos. But the reality is, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese will see a lot of foreign athletes with tattoos – on the beach, in the pools, all round town.
Here are a few of the Olympic hopefuls who sport tattoos.
I received several compliments when mine were visible, and one of my favourite moments on our most recent trip was when I had a summer dress on in the subway and my forearm tattoos were showing. One particularly cool young man seemed quietly fascinated, and rolled up his shirt sleeves silently to reveal the very lower edges of his arm tattoos. We were part of some similar ‘tribe’. No words were exchanged, only a nod that my husband could take his picture as he posed nonchalantly against the train door.
If you have tattoos and plan a visit to Japan, Moss writes that you should take the following under advisement:
Expect to completely cover tattoos at any pool, gym and most water parks and beaches.
Tattoos are banned at onsens (bath houses).
Many ryokans (Japanese inns) will not accept tattooed guests.
You should consider covering your tattoos at any temple or sacred site.
And what does Moss suggest are the best ways to avoid Japanese seeing your tattoo?
Use a rashie at the pool
Book a private onsen instead of attending a public one.