By David Williams, CNN
Becca Meyers won three gold medals and a silver at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the swimmer, who’s deaf and blind, said being there without someone to help navigate took its toll.
The two-time Paralympian announced on Tuesday that she would not be attending the Tokyo Games next month because she said the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) denied her request to bring her mother to serve as personal care assistant.
Tokyo organizers have put strict restrictions in place for the games to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“In Rio 2016, I did not have my mom or a designated PCA (personal care assistant) to work with me and I fell apart, so I know what would happen if I go to Tokyo without my mom,” Meyers said Wednesday in an interview with CNN’s “New Day.”
Meyers, 26, has Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes deafness or hearing loss and the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa that affects vision and worsens over time. She has been deaf since she was born and has used a cochlear implant since she was young, according to her Team USA bio.
She has been swimming since she was 6 and won a sliver and bronze medal in the 2012 London Paralympics.
Her mom, Maria Meyers, told CNN that Becca has a very narrow field of vision, so she needs one-on-one help to navigate airports, dining halls and other areas of the bustling venues so she can be in a better position to compete.
“I’m there to just whisper in her ear, ‘It’s on your left, it’s on your right’ to guide her and take care of her,” Maria Meyers said. “I don’t have anything to do with the pool, that’s all her and the coaches, but they really have to have staff that knows how to orient and take care of these kids.”
She has been her daughter’s PCA in international competitions since 2017.
The USOPC said in a statement that because of the pandemic, there was “a drastic reduction placed in the number of accredited support staff able to travel to Japan.”
“In the case of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, there is a designated Personal Care Assistant (PCA) assigned to the team. This PCA has more than 27 years of coaching experience, including eleven years with para swimmers. Because of the complex nature of these games, the role of the PCA has been filled by a qualified staff member who is able to serve in dual roles and who can assist the team as a whole when needed. This PCA joins a staff of 10 additional accomplished swim professionals, all who have experience with blind swimmers; totaling 11 staff for 34 athletes.”
The USOPC said it would have sports medicine, athlete services, a mental health program and other resources available for all members of Team USA.
“The decisions we’ve made on behalf of the team have not been easy, and we are heartbroken for athletes who are unable to have their previous support resources available. We are confident in the level of support we will offer Team USA and look forward to providing them a positive athlete experience even in the most unprecedented times,” the statement said.
Meyers said that the decision to withdraw was heartbreaking and it felt like her five years of training “was all for nothing.”
“I can’t even put it into words. I haven’t been sleeping well, I haven’t been eating, it’s just torn me apart,” she told CNN. “Swimming is a part of who I am, it’s given me identity as a person. I’ve always been known as Becca the swimmer, not Becca the deaf/blind person and now I feel very worthless as a person.”
Meyers said she wants the USOPC to make changes because Paralympic athletes, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, need more resources.
“I am standing up so that future generations never have to feel the pain that I felt and that no one on Team USA should ever feel afraid,” she said.
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CNN’s Kevin Dotson, Eric Levenson and David Lauterbach contributed to this story.