Volunteers: The Unsung Heroes of the Tokyo Paralympics

Hannah Aspden, far left, celebrates a gold medal with swimming relay teammates at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photo by Getty Images

Kindness is a universal language. In August, when I found myself in the Paralympic Village in Tokyo, I learned a lot about the cultures of the world and what makes us all unique.

I was most surprised by the way Japanese volunteers filled a void I had expected to feel without my family and friends. Their kindness is what I remember.

As a Paralympic swimmer, competing for Team USA at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games was an incredible honor. Despite the setbacks and uncertainties of the year leading up to the Games, the host country created an experience like no other, exceeding all expectations.

We were kept safe, taken care of and treated like family. From the moment we landed in Japan, we were welcomed with warm smiles and open arms. Airport employees rushed to our sides to help carry bags and guide us through customs processes. People along our bus routes to competition venues held up signs that said things like “all Paralympians are my heroes.” The security team happily welcomed us home in the rain late at night. The volunteers at the pool were the first to congratulate us after every race.

Each and every person I encountered treated me with respect and compassion and left a lasting impression on the way I view Japan.

The worst restriction of the pandemic was that family, friends and other spectators could not share the experience with us. We didn’t see our families in the stands, or get to hug them after medal ceremonies or experience the emotional highs and lows of the Games with them.

We expected that to leave a painful void, but what we never could have anticipated was the incredible way Japanese people filled that void. The volunteers lined the hallways, cheering for us and encouraging us.

Many of my most emotional moments of the Games were shared just with those volunteers, the off-camera, candid, memorable moments.

I choked back tears after being disqualified for a gold medal on my first relay; cried after winning an individual gold the next day; and laughed after swimming a personal best time in my worst event. As I left the pool for the last time, it was difficult to process the emotions of closing out my second Paralympic Games.

But Japanese volunteers took the place of our usual support systems, filling a wide range of roles with grace and positivity.

Some of my fondest memories were never televised. A volunteer gave me an origami swan in the dining hall; volunteers drew delightful artwork on the bottoms of our paper cups; security guards asked us how our day was going; and the bus driver wished me and my teammates good luck.

Volunteers traded pins with us. They poured their hearts into creating a unifying experience, reminding us that we are all human. They embodied the spirit of the Games and the spirit of Japanese hospitality.

Volunteers showed an exceptional level of care for the equipment and belongings of Paralympic athletes.

On an Olympic pool deck, you typically see athletes walk out for races with items like jackets, shoes, gloves, towels and water bottles. On a Paralympic pool deck, the items we leave behind the starting blocks often include equipment like prosthetic limbs, crutches, braces, canes and wheelchairs.

Japanese volunteers treated these like an extension of the athlete — and they are. They represent parts of our identity; parts of the Paralympic movement and all that it stands for; and the unique ways that each individual overcomes obstacles.

After my races, the volunteers met me at the side of the pool to bring me my crutches, having handled them with extreme care as if my belongings were their own. They did the same for other athletes with wheelchairs, prosthetics and various other equipment.

They quite literally walked with us through some of the most memorable moments of our lives, making us feel safe and supported as we chased our dreams on the world’s biggest stage.

Written for the Queens University News Service, this column was published Dec. 22, 2021, in The Japan Times.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Published by students of Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28274.