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Athletes hold out hope for 2020 Tokyo Olympics as pandemic grows

After his professional team in northern Italy stopped playing games because of the growing coronavirus pandemic, Team USA Olympic volleyball bronze medal-winner Matt Anderson, a Buffalo native, needed three planes and two layovers to return to his fiancée and newborn son in Indianapolis.

The West Seneca West and Penn State graduate didn’t have any symptoms of the respiratory disease COVID-19, which is spreading at an exponential rate and prompting lockdowns of countries across the globe.

But he was less than relieved to be back in the United States.

“The first thing I did, I had a little anxiety, so I called my sister,” Anderson said this week, explaining that she’s a nurse at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I was like, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. Do I need to get tested?’

“And she’s like, ‘No, you’re fine.’

“I called the Indiana state board, I was like, ‘This is what’s happening. This is where I came from. Do I need to go get tested?’

“They’re like, ‘No, you’re fine.’

“I’m just trying to do my best, to do my duty to be as vigilant and as open as possible, but it’s so crazy because it takes one person just to come in contact and it spreads.”

Anderson, 32, and other Olympic athletes from Western New York who competed in the 2016 Rio Games – including gold medal-winning rower Emily Regan, a 31-year-old Nichols School graduate, and artistic (synchronized) swimmer Anita Alvarez, a 23-year-old Kenmore West alumna – spoke to The Buffalo News by phone this week about how the growing coronavirus crisis and quarantines have impacted their lives and training for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The Tokyo Games are scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9, but with major sporting events halted around the globe, and the pandemic worsening, there’s a growing sentiment that the Olympics will be canceled or postponed.

“There’s the fear that it’s not going to happen,” Regan said, “because I, as [has] every athlete who’s training for the Olympics, have given up a lot to train for this one event that happens once every four years. And we don’t get paid very much. And you sacrifice family time.

“You sacrifice,” she said, pausing as she began to cry. “I’m sorry. Obviously, it’s been a stressful time for everyone. But you sacrifice so much. Even over Christmas, my sister and my nephew were home and I had to get on the erg (rowing machine) and train and I’d come in to get water or something and my nephew, he’d be crying because he didn’t want me to leave. He wanted me to spend time with him. So knowing how much I’ve sacrificed and put into this, it would be really sad for a lot of people if the Olympics didn’t happen.”

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 200,000 Wednesday morning, doubling in two weeks, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, nearly four months after the first cases were discovered in Wuhan, China. More than 8,000 people have died, including more than 100 in the U.S., which has recorded cases in all 50 states.

The epicenter of the pandemic has since shifted to Europe, with northern Italy bearing the brunt of the outbreak. Italy has reported more than 31,000 cases and 2,500 deaths. Hospitals have been overwhelmed. Nurses and doctors are triaging patients because of a lack of resources, including protective gear and respirators, a wartime philosophy of deciding who lives and dies based on best chances for survival. Morgues are inundated with bodies.

The country has been in total lockdown since Friday.

“My town (Bologna) was one of the first towns to have that sweeping ban instituted,” said Anderson, who made his Olympics debut at the 2012 London Games. “It was in Lombardia, like the main area, and we’re a couple of provinces away from there. Milan got hit really bad. … The culture of Italy is to go out and be in public and conversing, and so when a virus like that hit, it’s so easily transmitted that it’s no wonder to me that it ballooned into such a big thing.

“When it first started to come, I got my family out, my fiancée and our son. I got them home two weeks ago, right when everything started getting a little extreme over there.”

Anderson – who remained until the Italian Volleyball League suspended its season – last week flew from Italy to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Indianapolis, while paying close attention to his personal hygiene.

“Not that I’m a dirty person by any means in general,” Anderson said. “I think it’s just staying smart and following the rules. I’m self-quarantining. I’m just chilling at home for two weeks until supposedly the symptoms or the virus could no longer be in me. If it is, I don’t qualify for any testing since I don’t have any symptoms. And so I just chill here until I can maybe go out for a little bit, but even then I don’t think I want to go out in public right now anyway.”

Alvarez, who swims in the duet event with partner Lindi Schroeder, has yet to qualify for the Summer Games. The U.S. has not yet earned a spot in the Olympics, and is supposed to attempt to qualify April 30-May 3 in Tokyo. The event has yet to be canceled or postponed.

Alvarez texted that Monday was a “crazy day” at the swimming team’s training site in California, “as it was a scramble of our area’s last day of full freedom before getting put into shelter in place/lockdown.”

“Our main pools were shutting down but we continued to find a way,” she wrote, “because in our heads, every day could be our last day with a pool, so we took advantage and stayed focused and productive with our time. It has now reached the point in our county where everything is shut down and we had started to think of backup plans b, c, d and z!

“My favorite one being renting out a large Airbnb villa with a backyard pool for the team and coaches to be able to train and live as a self-isolated group. Unfortunately, over lots of discussion, we chose to stay in remote training in our homes, but are continuing to have daily team trainings on Facetime for 3-4 hours. There are tons of things we are able to do ‘on land’ to maintain our physical and mental fitness as much as possible, so we are staying positive and looking forward to getting creative with our training.

“Although not being able to touch a pool for a few weeks is frightening, all of our competitors across the world are in the same position, so all we can do is stick together and keep the focus on our goals and desires and not our fears and worries.”

All competitions and Olympic qualifying events have been canceled or postponed through April, she said. She’s waiting to hear about the Olympic qualifier scheduled for the first week of May, as well as the games altogether.

The 2020 Olympics torch lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia was held without spectators and the Olympic Games flame handover in Athens will take place in an empty stadium Thursday.

Regan, who has been on the national rowing team since 2013, won a gold medal in the women's eight boat at the Rio Games. She was in the boat that finished third at the 2019 World Championships in Austria.

Regan said U.S. rowers have broken the team into four groups of eight athletes and are staggering the start of practice times to maintain small groups. They’ve stopped meeting with their coach before or after practice – he leaves messages on a whiteboard – and work exclusively with one partner and on a single, assigned indoor rower so they’re not sharing gym equipment. Regan said she may have to take the erg home, in the event of a total lockdown.

U.S. Rowing said Olympic trials in Sarasota, Fla., from March 16-21 and April 13-18 have been postponed and the organization will not hold a national team event for at least 30 days.

“We train in Princeton, N.J., and last Tuesday the Ivy League was the first conference to cancel all of their sports,” said Regan, who was an All-American at Michigan State. “So my team and I were there when they were having their seasons canceled. I was a student-athlete in high school at one point so you can really feel and be empathetic towards what they’re going through. But for now, I really hope that us as a country, we’ve learned lessons from what is happening in other countries. We’re not the first country to be hit by this. And I hope that we’re all being smart and it will not come to the same (extreme) as it has in other places already.

“We’re not going to know for a few weeks really, the situation that we’re in in the U.S., but I’m hopeful that the precautions that people are taking will be [helpful]. I’m hopeful that we will not end up in a situation like Italy’s currently in.”

Anderson said he’s doing his best to remain in shape while home with his fiancée Jacquelyn and 6-week-old son Michael James, named after Anderson's late father, a silver lining amid the ordeal. Team USA men's volleyball qualified for the Olympics last summer, and while Anderson knows the Tokyo Games could be canceled or postponed, he said that isn’t “necessarily on the forefront of my mind.”

“It is a little bit because my fiancée and I are getting married a couple of weeks after the Olympics,” Anderson said. “So if it gets postponed a month, that definitely messes with some stuff, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it. Right now, it’s just about staying healthy, keeping my family healthy, making sure we have enough food to last this self-quarantine and then I’m prepared to either go out to California and start training with Team USA or go back to Italy to finish the season.”

Anderson said that since he doesn’t have symptoms, his fiancée goes to the supermarket once every four days or so to get food.

“But for the most part we Instacart stuff, we DoorDash food, and just let everybody know that I was in Italy and ask, ‘Can you leave it outside the door and we’ll get it?’ ” Anderson said. “We really limit our face-to-face contact with other people. We’re doing our best to not spread anything. You also don’t want to add to the hysteria of people, you know?”

Anderson said he often talks on the phone with Indiana University women’s volleyball coach Steve Aird, a longtime confidant and friend from Penn State.

“We always finish (our conversations) with, ‘Hey, man. Our lives are incredibly blessed. We have to be happy. We have to be positive about everything, because look what we have,’ ” Anderson said. “Being stuck in the house with my fiancée and my son – we have food, we have running water, we’re OK. I’m blessed. I’m happy.”

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