Becca Meyers pulled out of the Tokyo Games after the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) refused the swimmer’s request that her personal care assistant, who is her mother, be present at the Games.
Meyers, a deaf-blind athlete, announced her “agonizing” choice to withdraw from the Paralympic Games and criticized the USOPC in a moving July 20 op-ed for USA Today. The USOPC “denied a reasonable and essential accommodation for me to be able to compete at the Games,” Meyers writes in USA Today. The decision left Meyers with “no choice” but to withdraw, she said on Instagram. “I’m angry, I’m disappointed, but most of all I’m sad to not be representing my country.”
Meyers was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that causes loss of hearing and vision (and sometimes balance). The condition accounts for about half of all inherited cases of deaf-blindness, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD).
Since 2017, the USOPC has permitted Meyers to have a trusted personal care assistant (PCA), her mother, to help her at international swim competitions, according to her Instagram post. But this year, with non-essential staff reduced and foreign visitors (including athletes’ family members) barred from the Games due to COVID-19 concerns, that changed. “I have repeatedly been told that I do not need my PCA whom I know and trust,” Meyers writes.
Meyers says that in an attempt to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, the USOPC designated a single on-staff PCA to assist Meyers—and her 33 fellow swim-team members. “There are eight remaining visually impaired athletes competing on the swim team alone,” Meyers adds, “yet not one person on the swim staff is specifically certified to work with blind or visually impaired athletes.” (The USOPC said in a statement that a PCA with 11 years of experience working with Paralympic swimmers, and 10 other support staff, would be available to the team, according to USA Today.)
Meyers points out that PCAs are essential support staff for Paralympians. “Athletes with disabilities are able to compete in a setting like the Paralympics because of PCAs. They help us navigate these foreign venues, from the pool deck, athlete check-in to finding where we can eat,” Meyers writes. “But the biggest support they provide athletes like myself is giving us the ability to trust our surroundings—to feel at home for the short time we’re in this new, unfamiliar environment.”
That support is even more important this year, with “the numerous restrictions and barriers that COVID-19 has put up,” Meyers argues. “What happens if there is an emergency in the middle of the night?” she writes. “Masks and distancing have made it incredibly difficult for me to make out what people are doing or saying. If I don’t have someone I can trust, how can I trust that I will be safe?”
This is not the first time the USOPC has failed Meyers, she says. At the Rio Paralympics in 2016, where Meyers won gold and silver medals, there was nobody on staff to care for a deaf-blind athlete. “I was overwhelmed navigating the athletes village, finding the bus terminal, making my way to the venues where I needed to compete,” Meyers writes. “I had such issues in and around the dining hall, where I wasn’t able to find the right food to eat, that I started skimping on meals.” The team’s head coach ultimately moved Meyers, who was “crippled with fear and anxiety,” from the village to a nearby hotel with her parents, to help her escape the “potentially dangerous situation” and prepare herself for the competition. “In that moment, I promised myself that I would never be put in that situation again,” Meyers writes. “Yet, here we are.”