'The fans are a big part of it': Area Olympians prepare to deal with silence

  • Courtesy of Kevin McDowellGeneva graduate Kevin McDowell has become one of the best triathletes in the world who is focused on making the 2021 U.S. Olympic team.

    Courtesy of Kevin McDowellGeneva graduate Kevin McDowell has become one of the best triathletes in the world who is focused on making the 2021 U.S. Olympic team.

  • Courtesy of Matt ParkerDavid Kendziera competes last weekend at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

    Courtesy of Matt ParkerDavid Kendziera competes last weekend at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

 
 
Updated 7/9/2021 8:19 AM

It's like being at the gym and lifting weights when the loud, booming music in the background suddenly stops.

Nothing but heavy breathing and grunting everywhere.

 

Ummmm, awkward.

Olympic hurdler David Kendziera has had a similar experience on the track.

"You're out there and all you hear is everyone breathing and someone hitting the hurdle every now and then," said Kendziera, a native of Mount Prospect and a 2013 Prospect High School graduate. "It's weird."

It's sports without fans. Ummmm, awkward.

It's been a thing for over a year now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until recently, many of the sporting events that were held since the pandemic began in March 2020 were held without fans. And it created an interesting, and oddly surreal, environment.

Now, due to a newly imposed state of emergency by the Japanese government in response to rising infections of COVID-19 and the spread of the delta variant, the Olympics in Tokyo is in for the same look ... and sound.

On Thursday, Olympic organizers announced that the Olympics that will begin in Tokyo on July 23 will not include any fans at all.

Originally, fans in the stands were going to be limited and include mostly Japanese residents. However, each Olympian from every country was going to get two tickets to give to family and friends for their events.

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Now, no one will be in the stands. Period.

"It's definitely gut-wrenching right now to hear that news," said Kendziera, who qualified for Tokyo in the 400-meter hurdles last month at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Oregon. "The fans are a big part of it. They make our events all the more worthwhile. When it comes to race time, they give you a little extra adrenaline.

"Even when they try to add in that fake crowd noise, it's not the same."

Like Kendziera, who has run races over the last year all over the world without fans, Geneva graduate Kevin McDowell, an Olympic triathlete, has some experience competing without fans as well.

It's certainly not preferred. But it's doable.

"To be honest, once you are in the race you are so focused on what's going on, adrenaline, you don't think too much about it," McDowell said. "Yeah, it would be nice to have a couple people yelling on the run when things get a little tougher and use that as extra motivation from the crowd, but I will just be thinking back to all the support back home."

And there will be plenty of that. Especially for the American athletes.

Kendziera said that he recently received a letter from Team USA stating that Team USA and the NBC television network have collaborated to create an Olympic experience for the friends and family of American Olympians in Orlando.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Each American Olympian will get two tickets to give away for an all-expenses paid trip for four nights at the Universal Resort in Orlando that will include transportation, special dinners, a three-day pass to the Universal parks and Olympic watch parties on big-screen TVs in the Team USA Olympic lounge.

Kendziera will be sending his parents.

"It's really nice, but it's still bittersweet," he said. "You work to get to the Olympics and you want to experience that with your family. Unfortunately, that won't happen, so you just look at this as a business trip. No distractions and you just go there to come out with the best possible outcome and know that your family and your friends will be there in spirit and supporting from afar."

While the families of the Olympians will be restricted, so might the Olympians themselves.

Besides COVID protocols that will include regular testing for COVID before and during the Olympics, athletes might also be subjected to strict rules about where they can and cannot go.

Olympic weightlifting judge Corinne Grotenhuis, a resident of South Elgin, has said that judges in her sport can't even go out to eat while in Tokyo.

"You can't go out, can't go shopping, can't go out to eat," Grotenhuis said. "All of my food will be brought up to my hotel room directly by Uber Eats.

"We also can't go to other events. Like, I am also a swim coach, so I was really hoping to go to some swimming events. That won't happen. There are some really strict guidelines."

Grotenhuis also said no fans at weightlifting events will be strange as well.

In weightlifting, there are many moments of silence anyway, such as when a lifter is about to perform a lift. But before the lifter gets to the platform, the crowd is very much a part of the event.

Grotenhuis says she will miss that as well.

"Some athletes really feed off of it. They'll raise their hands on the stage and yell to the crowd and really interact and get the energy up," she said. "Without fans, it's going to be an Olympics like no other. And hopefully we never ever have to do this again. It's a bummer.

"But I'm still going to the Olympics. So are the Olympians. And that's what they've worked so hard for. It's been the dream ... and it's still happening."

• John Lemon contributed to this story

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