Three-time swimming gold medalist Becca Meyers will not travel to Tokyo for the 2021 Paralympic Games, because the deaf-blind Timonium, Maryland, resident’s mother will not be allowed to accompany her as an aide under COVID-19 restrictions.
Meyers said she was disappointed and angry that U.S. Olympic officials have not found a way to accommodate her after months of requests but said she’s determined to stand up for the rights of future Paralympians. Without her mother’s guidance, Meyers said, she would be overwhelmed by the bustling soundscape of the Paralympics and unable to read lips hidden behind protective masks. The thought kept her up nights and left her exhausted during training, so she pulled the plug on an athletic quest that has defined her since childhood.
“Swimming’s given me my identity. My purpose is to swim; that’s who I’ve been my entire life: Becca the swimmer,” Meyers said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It allowed me to kind of forget about my disability, so when they said no, I can’t have my [protective care assistant] of choice, whom I trust, it kind of made me feel like a second-class citizen, like I’m not validated as a person.”
On Sunday, the 26-year-old Meyers sent an email to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee withdrawing herself from Team USA. Her decision, less than five weeks before she was expected to compete in her third Paralympics, was first reported by The Washington Post.
Meyers was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that rendered her deaf at birth and has progressively diminished her sight. Since 2017, she has relied on her mother, Maria, to help her navigate swimming events as a personal care assistant (PCA).
This wasn’t a problem until the coronavirus pandemic led to severe limits on the number of support staffers allowed to travel with athletes to the 2021 Olympics and Paralympics. Meyers won three gold medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and has remained one of the dominant Paralympic swimmers in the world in recent years, but she decided a trip to Tokyo would be unmanageable without her mother.
Though USOPC officials have expressed sympathy for Meyers’ situation, she and her parents are angry at what they perceive as lack of support from the organization. They said USOPC officials have cited restrictions from the Japanese government and Tokyo Olympic organizers as the reason why Maria Meyers cannot travel with her daughter. But Meyers’ parents said they reached out through diplomatic and other channels and were told the decision laid not with the Japanese government but with the USOPC, which plans to accommodate its 34 Paralympic swimmers with a single personal care assistant and six coaches.
Meyers’ case is “heartbreaking” but complex legally because of questions regarding jurisdiction and reasonable accommodation, said Andy Levy, an attorney with Baltimore-based Brown, Goldstein & Levy who has worked numerous cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“In terms of the ability to file for an injunction in the U.S. to force the U.S. Olympic Committee to accommodate her so she can go, boy, I don’t know,” Levy said. “You might have a very hard time getting a judge to order that kind of injunctive relief since I assume the USOC explanation is going to be, ‘This is out of our hands.’ ”
He noted that the ADA is full of “wiggle” words. “What’s ‘reasonable?’” Levy said. “What’s an ‘undue burden?’ It’s so fact-intensive. … Even if a judge believed the U.S. Olympic Committee had dropped the ball, they may feel that it’s not within their power, that there’s sort of no injunction the court could issue that would change [the situation].”
Levy’s legal partner, Eve Hill, who served as a senior disability rights attorney in the Department of Justice, did not see as many barriers to a potential legal challenge. “It could be subject to a preliminary injunction or a temporary restraining order; it certainly seems ridiculous that they would say allowing her to have a personal care attendant is impossible,” Hill said. “It’s clearly not impossible.”
It would be incumbent on the USOPC to prove that personal care assistants represent an extraordinary burden in the pandemic, she added. Hill said questions of jurisdiction are murkier because the Paralympics are in Tokyo but noted that when U.S.-based schools send students to study abroad, they’re still required to meet ADA standards.
The case has already drawn attention from elected leaders and fellow Paralympians. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wrote on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that it was “shameful” and that the USOPC should reverse its decision “immediately.”
Columbia, Md., native Tatyana McFadden, who has won 17 Paralympic medals, wrote on Twitter, “This should have never happened.”
U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen also condemned the USOPC on Twitter.
Meyers said she and her parents consulted with disability rights attorneys about a possible legal challenge after the USOPC made it clear in May that her mother would not be allowed to travel to Tokyo as a PCA. “It’s very tricky,” she said. “To them, I’m considered as an independent consultant, not an employee, so I’m not protected by the ADA.”
She said she’s still exploring legal avenues but that one way or another, she’s not going to Tokyo.
“That door has closed,” she said. “My training has suffered tremendously in the last couple of months. I stopped swimming a few weeks ago. I haven’t been sleeping well, not eating great. I can’t go to Tokyo now and be able to perform the way I wanted to perform. I feel that right now, if I stay home and make noise, that’s better than a gold medal.”
Maria Meyers said she still can’t believe the USOPC did not reach out to arrange a compromise. “In the year 2021, are you kidding me?” she said. “This swimmer has given nine years to this organization. She’s brought home multiple medals; she has nine world records. And they wouldn’t have a conversation with her?”
She said it’s a particularly troubling message for an event that’s designed to celebrate the differences in Paralympic athletes.
The USOPC did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday but provided a statement to The Washington Post: “We are dealing with unprecedented restrictions around what is possible on the ground in Tokyo. As it’s been widely reported, [the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games], at the direction of the government of Japan, is not permitting any personnel other than operational essential staff with roles related to the overall execution of the Games, into the country.
“This position has resulted in some athletes advising us that they will not accept a nomination to Team USA for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We are heartbroken for athletes needing to make agonizing decisions about whether to compete if they are unable to have their typical support resources at a major international competition, but our top priority is ensuring the safety of our athletes, coaches, staff and the citizens of the host country.”
The pandemic has already cast an enormous shadow over these Games, which were postponed by a year. Tokyo is operating under a state of emergency with the Olympics set to begin this week, and organizers are scrambling to deal with positive tests among athletes who are already there.
The pandemic has also impinged on Meyers’ training. Two years ago, she left the North Baltimore Aquatic Club for Nation’s Capital Swim Club, the Washington-area institution made famous by Katie Ledecky. But with COVID-19 limiting pool time, she shifted to working out solo at a gym near her home in Timonium.
Nonetheless, she expected to contend for multiple medals in the S12 category, one of three groupings for vision-impaired swimmers.
Meyers said she’s received a flood of supportive messages from friends, family members and teammates since news of her withdrawal broke. “Everyone is so upset, so angry, so disappointed in the USOPC,” she said. “But they’re all very proud of me for taking a stand.”
She hopes her story will help the next generation of Paralympic athletes avoid the pain she’s felt over the last few months. She’s not sure what’s next for “Becca the swimmer.”
“Everything is still so unsettled. My emotions are still so raw,” she said. “I can’t give an honest answer right now. I really don’t know.”