After a Year of Crushed Dreams, L.A. Olympians and Paralympians Hope 2021 Will Finally Be Their Shot

For athletes who spent years training to make it to Tokyo, 2020 was a major setback. We spoke with three locals about forging ahead amid a global crisis and the uncertainty that’s come with it

2020 was supposed to be it. The culmination of years of dreams, training, preparation, and sacrifice. It was not to be. The Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls of Los Angeles were told they had to wait until 2021.

On March 24, 2020, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee agreed to delay the Tokyo Games in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Olympics are now set to take place July 23 through August 8, 2021, while the Paralympics are scheduled for August 24 through September 5.

Luck does not seem to be on these games’ side. A recent spike in Tokyo’s COVID-19 cases has led many to call for the games’ further delay or cancelation in the name of public safety. A poll in May indicated that a staggering 83 percent of Japanese voters don’t want the games to take place this summer, and, just this week, spectators were barred from attending the games as a state of emergency was declared. This leaves the athletes to wonder: Is 2021 finally going to be the year their dedication bears fruit?

The greater L.A. area is home to many such competitors. Past, present, and prospective Olympians like gold medal winner Allyson Felix and beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings call SoCal home. For 14-year-old track star Ezra Frech, Tokyo 2020 was to be his first Paralympic Games. Based in West L.A., he was hopeful looking towards the trials last June. A member of the national team who placed in the top ten in multiple events at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, he was well positioned to make the final squad—that was until he got the message.

“I was in an online class, and I got the notification, and we sort of expected it,” he said in an interview last year. “My heart just sunk. It’s 100 percent the right decision. I was pretty sad about. I’m still kind of bummed. You spent the last four years visualizing Tokyo 2020, and it was so close, and I’ve been putting in so much work and training so hard to compete this summer. I’ve waited four years for the opportunity. I’ve waited four years it doesn’t hurt to wait one more.”

Ezra Frech long jumping

Clayton Frech with Angel City Sports

It was a tough double whammy for Frech. Angel City Sports, his and his father Clayton’s organization for kids, adults, and vets with physical disabilities or visual impairments, had to cancel its yearly games, which were scheduled for last June.

Water polo standout Max Irving says he got the news first thing in the morning.

“I was at home, just waking up, and I got a text from a friend saying the Olympics were going to be canceled. Shortly after our group message just continued to buzz with messages,” he said. “I mean, obviously I was very disappointed initially, but it is kind of comforting to know the International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic Committee are prioritizing athlete health and well being.”

Born and raised in Long Beach, Irving went through the long months of lockdown with the rest of us, but it didn’t stop him from training. He stayed strong using weights and doing planks, push-ups, cardio, even some open-water swimming.

Max Irving in the pool

But staying in peak form during COVID-19 became a challenge for many athletes. In a recent editorial opposing holding the games this summer, Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun pointed out the hardships people in many places have continued to face as the pandemic rages on, writing, “The pandemic has prevented some athletes from competing in qualifiers. A huge gap exists between countries where progress has been made in mass inoculations and those where it hasn’t, obviously affecting athletes’ training and performances.”

Here in the U.S., where conditions went from bad to worse in 2020, and then improved thanks to a robust inoculation effort, Ezra Frech says he did his best to make do.

“I mean it’s really difficult,” he told Los Angeles last year. “I’ve just been doing body circuits in my own room, with little space. I think that’s one of the most difficult things, because at a gym there’s weights, there’s music. It’s like the whole vibe is getting you hyped up to work out, so it’s easier to push yourself in a place like that than it is in your own room. There’s no one holding me accountable for how many push-ups I do. There’s no one holding me accountable for if I finish this last set. It’s only mental, and it’s only myself motivating myself to keep going.”

On the plus side, the postponement gave athletes another year to improve their skills.

“Especially with a team sport, you can’t really go wrong with having more time,” Orange County-born softball catcher Aubree Munro told Los Angeles upon the cancelation last year. “We have some people who are newer to the program this year [2020] and new to the program the year before, so it just gives everyone more time to be comfortable and to trust. When we’re on the field at the Olympic Games, it’s all going to come down to trust and how we prepared.”

Catcher Aubree Munro got another year to improve her game.

Courtesy USA Softball

All of the athletes we spoke to have secured their spots to compete at Tokyo this year; now they just have to contend with the amped up COVID protocols and the absence of a cheering audience. “The experience is going to be really different,” Ezra Frech said in an email. “I don’t think they are going to allow us to mingle and socialize with other athletes too much. So the experience in the village will be very different.”

Despite the delay and ongoing complications, Ezra Frech had a hopeful attitude in an Instagram post. “#tokyo2021 gonna be a movie. We will STAY working,” he said.

Now L.A.’s hard-working athletes just have to hope the movie has a happy ending.

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