Becca Meyers, a deaf-blind swimmer and two-time Paralympian, has withdrawn from Team USA ahead of next month's Tokyo Paralympics after the USOPC denied her request to have a personal care assistant (PCA) with her in Japan.
Meyers, 26, was born with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. She has been deaf since birth and has progressively lost her eyesight. She is a six-time Paralympic medalist, winning three gold medals and a silver at the 2016 Rio Games, and a silver and bronze at London 2012. Meyers requires a PCA to compete at the highest level and to complete day-to-day tasks like navigating the bus system, making it to venues and eating at the dining hall while on-site at events. Meyers notified U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials Sunday night by email.
"Team USA and USOPC know that I am deaf and blind," Meyers told ESPN. "I need a personal care assistant who I can trust. They are claiming that because of COVID restrictions, I can't get approved for a PCA. But I really don't believe that it's just because of COVID. They chose to ignore my needs. They chose to ignore my request for my team.
"It makes me really upset. I am a person with disabilities. And I don't feel safe going to Tokyo without my PCA. I shouldn't have to fear my safety in Tokyo because I have been denied my PCA. How can an organization that prides itself on celebrating athletes with disabilities do this to an athlete with disabilities?"
The USOPC did not immediately respond to comment from ESPN, but it did address Meyers' situation in a story published by 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."
At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Meyers decided not to have a PCA. However, after a frustrating and frightening experience when she couldn't find the athletes' dining area, she vowed to never put herself in that situation again.
"In 2016, I was still trying to figure out my disabilities as a deaf-blind person," Meyers said. "I didn't really know what proper resources I needed. But then I had my crisis -- my epic meltdown. And I realized, I can't do this. I need help."
After Rio, she chose to have her mother, Maria, as her PCA to help her navigate life in and out of the pool. But on a bigger scale, she said her experience in 2016 was a wake-up call that the Paralympic swim team did not have the proper resources for athletes who are both visually and hearing impaired.
"No one on the [Team USA Paralympic] swimming staff was equipped to handle a deaf-blind person out of the pool. They're swim coaches," she said. "They didn't know how to work with us, and that's what I'm trying to change. We need certified people to work with visually- and hearing-impaired athletes so that we can succeed at the highest level, so that we can go to the biggest stage. We can't be stressed out over tasks like trying to find the dining hall or dorm rooms. Basic things. And then you expect us to go out and compete and win a medal? It's astounding to me."
Since 2017, Meyers' mother has been allowed to travel with her to international competitions as her PCA. With Maria there, Meyers won five gold medals at the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championship in 2018 and four medals and two world records at the World Para Swimming championship in 2019.
But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted restrictions on travel, spectators and nonessential workers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. For athletes like Meyers, those restrictions mean that PCAs won't be permitted into Japan for the Paralympic Games, which are scheduled Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. As a result, Meyers did not feel safe attending the competition without her mother by her side and decided to withdraw.
"It's hard to put into words, but the first word that comes to mind is anger," Maria Meyers told ESPN.
"She was a medal contender. We were calling the USOPC and telling them that all she needs is someone to support her. We understood that maybe I wouldn't be able to go because I'm also her mother, but we asked them to give her someone. Someone designated just for her. A PCA just for her so that when she flies to Tokyo at night and needs to go to the bathroom on the airplane, someone can help her. When she needs to find her luggage and get to the Olympic Village, someone can help her. It's all those little things that they don't even think about."
The USOPC explained to Meyers and her family that the Japanese government and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee imposed the restrictions on foreign visitors and delegations.
"Unfortunately, as to the IPC's [International Paralympic Committee] criteria for the minor chaperone accreditation, Becca does not qualify and therefore that option is not available," Rick Adams, chief of sport performance and national governing body services for the USOPC, wrote in an email to Mark Meyers, Becca's father, on June 29. "There remains no exceptions to late additions to our delegation list other than the athletes and essential operational personnel per the organizing committee and the government of Japan."
"I fully empathize with your concerns and wish we could find a way as we have in the past."
However, the Meyers family does not believe the Japanese government and organizing committee are solely responsible for blocking the PCA request.
"The USOPC has not tried to help the situation. Since February, they've known about this issue. And they haven't tried to remedy the situation at all. They just expressed that they can't accommodate me and they don't want to figure out a solution," Becca Meyers said. "They've claimed that it's the Japanese government, but we don't believe that. They said that the Japanese government isn't allowing non-essential personnel, and I respect that. But my PCA is essential."
Meyers was told that the U.S. Paralympic swim team will have one dedicated PCA for 34 athletes, and that the team's six coaches can help. Meyers and her family believe Paralympic athletes' PCAs should be designated as essential workers.
Nine U.S. Paralympic swimmers are designated as sight-impaired, but Meyers is the only one who is also deaf. Over the past few years, Meyers said her sight has deteriorated. And despite having cochlear implants that help her hear in quiet settings, she relies heavily on lip-reading. With mask mandates in full-time effect in Japan during the Games, Meyers said she knows she won't be able to communicate at all.
After submitting her withdrawal letter Sunday night, Meyers said she received a response that said the USOPC would start the process of finding her replacement.
"I'm disgusted," Meyers said. "As an athlete, I did everything correct for this organization. I won medals. I trained so hard, especially during the postponement and pandemic. I wanted to be the best athlete. I feel like I was kicked in the teeth. Like, they just don't care about anyone."
By withdrawing, Meyers said she wants to spread a message and fight for changes for the next generation of athletes with disabilities.
"This culture needs to change. I need to stand up for the younger athletes who are like me. I need to make a stand. Enough is enough," she said. "The next generation can't go to Paris 2024 feeling scared. As a disabled person, why am I still fighting for my rights in 2021? This is ridiculous. I'm doing this for future generations so that they don't have to experience the pain that I've been through."