Sullivan: For WNY Olympians, Tokyo won’t be a family affair

Jerry Sullivan

A warning sign is displayed on the shoreline near the Olympic Rings on January 22, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Getty Images)

Larry Regan remembers the first time he watched one of his four children compete in sports. It was when his daughter, Kelly, played on the fourth grade basketball team for St. Gregory’s some 25 years ago.

It’s been one heck of a ride for Larry and his wife, Barb. Three of the kids — Kelly, Jim and Will — became basketball stars. Kelly and Will were named Player of the Year in Western New York. Will was on the first UB men’s team to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

But it was the last child, Emily, who surprised the family and became the most accomplished athlete of all. After joining her college rowing team on a lark, she became one of the top female rowers in the world, part of a U.S. women’s eight that won 11 straight international races and captured a third straight Olympic gold at the 2016 Game in Rio.

Emily’s rowing took her parents around the globe. Larry said he’s been to well over a half dozen countries, “from Brazil to South Korea to Bulgaria and everywhere pretty much in-between.”

The international travel is an added bonus. The true reward, as any parent knows, comes in watching a child find joy and accomplishment in a chosen sport — or really, in any competitive endeavor.

“Not only watching them compete,” he said, “watching them interact with teammates and have fun, experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you watch them develop their character. 

“The other aspect of it is the interaction with the other parents.”

Regan was looking forward eagerly to the Tokyo Olympics, which might well be his last chance to watch one of his kids perform. When the 2020 Games were postponed by one year due to COVID-19, it was a disappointment. But at least he could look forward to Japan in 2021.

“I certainly was optimistic and hopeful that would be the case,” Regan said. “I told Emily it was an awful thing that it got postponed, but if things settle down and they get this under control, imagine what a celebration it would be in July of 2021.”

Emily Regan, Kerry Simmonds, Amanda Polk, Lauren Schmetterling, Tessa Gobbo, Meghan Musnicki, Eleanor Logan and Katelin Snyder of the United States compete in the Women’s Eight Heat 1 on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Lagoa Stadium on August 8, 2016. (Getty Images)

Instead, there was another letdown. Earlier this month, Tokyo organizers announced that overseas spectators would not be allowed at the Olympics. They’re moving ahead with the Games, despite opposition from a majority of the Japanese public, while making concessions to ensure the safety of athletes and the local residents. 

Japan has not been hit very hard by the virus, with about 450,000 cases and 8,900 deaths in a country of about 125 million. But the country experienced a recent spike in infections and Japan is lagging behind many other countries in vaccinations. 

The decision, made in concert with the IOC and Japanese government entities, had been foreshadowed in recent weeks, so it did not come as a surprise to Americans. That includes Tom Terhaar, the Buffalo native who is the long-time coach of the U.S. women’s rowing squad. Terhaar said he suspected that Japan would prohibit overseas fans.

“They even floated that idea last year before they canceled,” Terhaar said. “That wasn’t a surprise. I guess it’s still really relative. It is a pandemic. People’s lives are at risk. So it’s disappointing, but they still get to hopefully race, to get an opportunity. They’ve probably been seeing their families through Skype most of the year anyway. And it’s an expensive trip, so I don’t know how many parents were going.”

A couple wearing face masks take a selfie together in front of the Olympic Rings on January 22, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Getty Images)

Larry Regan, who has probably watched as much women’s rowing than any other American over the last decade, agreed with the coach. 

“I can appreciate the decision,” Regan said, “because they have to do what’s best for the country. What I’m really happy about is that the Games can go forward. That’s the main thing.”

They’ll go forward without family or friends from other nations, that’s all. A contingent of more than a dozen was on hand in Rio, including Emily’s three siblings, her grandmother, her aunt and friends from her college days at Michigan State. 

The fan group would have been smaller for Tokyo — in the likely event Emily makes the team again. “Life changed,” Larry said. Kelly had two children. Jim’s wife was expecting in May. But Larry and Barb would have been there, as they have for about about a decade now.

Vince Ferraro can relate. His nephew, West Seneca’s Matt Anderson, is one of the best volleyball players on the planet. Ferraro watched him at Penn State, when Matt’s father, Mike, was alive and leading the cheers in the stands at Happy Valley. Vince was there when Anderson played on the U.S. Olympic team in London in 2012, and when he won bronze at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and many places in-between. 

“In the summer of 2018, we took friends of ours to Italy and took them up to Modena for an international competition,” Ferraro said. “Matt and the U.S. men’s team were playing against Italy. The environment was like being at a Bills game. when we walked in with our Anderson T-shirts, people were just going crazy. Because in Italy, especially in Modena, they just loved Matthew. 

“Our friends were taken aback by it all. They had never experienced that type of attention just for wearing a Matt Anderson T-shirt.”

Matt Anderson of West Seneca spikes the ball during the men’s semi-final volleyball match between Italy and USA at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (AFP/Getty Images)

About a dozen family and friends were in Rio when Anderson led the Americans from behind to a bronze medal. It included Matt’s mother, Nancy (Vince’s sister); Matt’s older brother, Josh, and his wife; and Ferraro’s wife, Lynn. A similar group had planned to be in Tokyo.

“We had made our arrangements to be in Tokyo with him,” Ferraro said. “The pandemic blew it to smithereens.”

Ferraro said he and his wife had paid more than $4,000 for air fare and close to $10,000 for hotels during the Olympics. The other people in the original traveling party had similar investments. He said there were some nervous moments when the Games were postponed, but eventually they got most of the money refunded. 

It wasn’t a surprise to hear that overseas spectators wouldn’t be allowed, even after a year. That didn’t make it any less disappointing. He and Lynn were hoping to go to Italy for their anniversary in August, but that’s doesn’t look good, either.

Ferraro said a “good contingency” had planned to be in Japan for Anderson’s third Olympics, hopeful of a gold this time. He and Lynn were bringing a couple of close friends, whose adult children planned to join them in Tokyo. Nancy was coming, of course, along with Matt’s wife, Jackie, his baby son, and his brother and sister-in-law.

Last March, when the Games were first postponed, Anderson told me, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” At the time, his son, Michael “Jamie”, was 2 months old. He said at least Jamie would be a year older in Tokyo in 2021. Now that won’t happen. But at least there’s going to be an Olympics. 

“That’s the bright side,” Ferraro said. “Matt’s mom is disappointed not to be able to go to the Olympics. She really is. She loves her son and the team. This group of men’s players have been together at least eight years for the majority of them. So the parents are all close friends as well. If the men are now married, we know their wives and significant others and their children.

“So it is a little bit of a bummer. That is a disappointment. But we are looking towards 2024.”

The Olympics are in Paris in ’24. So it’s some consolation to know they’ll always have Paris. That’s the plan, anyway.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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