VOICES

Even Olympians need their moms. But my daughter will have to compete in Tokyo alone.

My daughter competes in track and field. But for the biggest meet of her athletic career to date, she'll have to leave half the team at home.

Nakela Irby
Opinion contributor

Imagine having a beautiful baby girl as your first born. She is a very active baby, toddler and adolescent who played many sports. At the age of 12, she tells you that she wants to be an Olympian and never strays from that dream.

That little girl is my daughter, Lynna. I was only a teenager when I had Lynna but, like most parents, I want to give my children what they need to accomplish their dreams. Even the big ones, like competing at the Olympics.

Lynna played many sports growing up but naturally gravitated towards track and field. Track and field is sometimes seen as an individual sport. However, there is plenty teamwork that goes into track and field Olympic athletes behind the scene. 

Lynna Irby wins the Women's 200m during the Blue Oval Showcase at Drake Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020 in Des Moines.

Lynna’s grandmother, Lena Irby, collects track stats and keeps the team educated with what is current in the sport as well as historical figures. Lynna's close aunties, Tanya Cunningham and Heather Irby, travel with the team and cheer the loudest. They have also created fan pages on social media and drum up plenty of excitement around Lynna’s events. Lynna’s siblings, Janay, Billie and William, keep her grounded by treating her like the Lynna they’ve always known her to be and not as a track star. Lynna’s previous coaches from her youth, Michael Vinson and Dee Dee Nathan, keep in touch to remind her of how far she’s come and where she is going. 

Lynna Irby and Nakela Irby, when Lynna was a high school student.

Since Lynna became a pro-athlete, we have championed many trainers to make sure she is race ready. These trainers include a head coach, Lance Brauman, coaches’ assistants, weightlifting coaches, a masseuse, chiropractor, nutritionists and chef, sleep experts and psychologists for good mental health habits.

Team on and off the track

Together – from family and friends to professional staff – we formed #TeamLynna to help Lynna realize her dreams. #TeamLynna also consists of an accountant, manager, sports agent and even an emotional support dog named Tuxedo. We are all on the team. 

As Lynna’s mother, my job started early and with humble beginnings with getting Lynna to the big meets across the city, state and globe. I would have been spotted wearing a smile and attempting to downplay how big those national and international meets were to Lynna’s track career. Downplaying, of course, just to help Lynna remain calm and run her race as her body was trained to do so. 

USA TODAY's Jill Lawrence:A pile of forgotten shoes snapped me back to pre-COVID reality. But the aftershocks won't stop.

To help calm Lynna’s anxiety before a big 400M run, sometimes I would play funny cat videos or show her some embarrassing pictures of herself crying at track practice. Other times, I would be there just to hand Lynna some water, a light snack, to listen to Lynna walk through her race plan and talk about whatever was on her mind. 

By 2020, some players on #TeamLynna were relatively new and some players had been around for more than a decade. Today, the team has more than quadrupled in size from when we started. That means my biggest job is to understand the contributions from each member and how they benefit Lynna the most. I will remove any roadblocks preventing any team member from being successful from doing their jobs on this full track team.

Nakela Irby and Lynna Irby after Lynna was awarded Indiana Sports Athlete of the Year award in 2017.

In preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we reserved Airbnb rentals, booked flights, a rental car and mapped out the entire trip. In short, #TeamLynna was ready to pour support into Lynna during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics games. Unfortunately, the Olympics were postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox

We attended the United States Olympic trials in June 2021 and watched as my beautiful baby girl made the U.S. Olympic team, officially! We knew that everything that the team had sacrificed and worked so hard for was finally going to pay off. 

Dreams dashed

As a parent, seeing my child’s dreams come true by making the U.S. Olympic team is true happiness and a huge breath of fresh air. We had a family celebratory dinner to celebrate Lynna, but then came the shock. 

Tokyo has banned all spectators from attending the Olympic games due to a state of emergency with the continued pandemic. This ban means athletes must attend the games with only part of their teams that helped them to get there. I have been on the team since Dec. 6, 1998 (Lynna’s birthday) and being unable to attend the Olympic games makes me feel so defeated. 

Serious down sides for kids:CDC guidance should not be used to mandate masks for kids under 12. They've suffered enough.

Lynna will not have protection around her mental health and general support as she enters a country where people have been very vocal about not welcoming the athletes for the Olympic Games. Not only is this the biggest meet of Lynna’s life to date, but she will have to attend her first Olympic games alone. 

Banning spectators is devastating. I would love to be in Japan for the Olympic games, however, #TeamLynna will explore virtual options to help bridge the distance g through this year’s Olympic games. For instance, we are planning to host a watch party in my backyard in Indianapolis on the days she will run on the relay. 

I encourage all Americans to embrace our U.S. Olympic athletes and join whatever support systems they can to help the athletes bring home the hardware. Our athletes are forced to leave behind half of their teammates during a pandemic. Make sure they know they are not alone.  

Nakela Irby lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is the mother of Lynna Irby, who is competing in the 2021 Summer Tokyo Olympics.