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The Backstory: Olympic athletes celebrate wins with family far from Tokyo. 'I hope I'm making them proud'

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USA TODAY Sports managing editor Roxanna Scott, who is leading our coverage of the Olympics in Tokyo, is filling in for editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll in this week's column. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

TOKYO – Carissa Moore was swept off her feet after she became the first woman to win a gold medal in Olympic surfing in a celebration that was joyful but small because of the COVID-19 protocols in place for these Olympics.

Moments after her final ride Tuesday, U.S. coach Brett Simpson and USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse, both wearing masks, hoisted Moore to their shoulders, carrying her up the beach as she grabbed an American flag and whooped.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion when the horn hooted and I was announced the gold medal winner,” Moore said the next day. “There’s just so much that has happened in the leadup to this event, and one of those factors to my emotion was not having my family and my friends here. I usually travel with my husband or my dad or my coaches.

“That was the first thing that came to my mind: I hope I’m making them proud. I hope that they know I’m thinking of them and they’re with me right now.”

Moore is not alone in missing that love and support from family and friends after realizing Olympic glory. Scenes of athletes embracing their moms and dads (remember Michael Phelps finding mom Debbie in the packed stands for a big hug in Beijing?) are usually lasting images of the Olympics.

But here in Tokyo, those little moments of human connection and spontaneity are harder to find, with social distancing, mask wearing, restrictions on travel for family and friends and mostly empty venues.

Carissa Moore celebrates after winning the women's surfing gold medal final during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Carissa Moore celebrates after winning the women's surfing gold medal final during the Tokyo Olympic Games.

If you’re watching the coverage on NBC, you’ve seen the virtual reunions and emotional exchanges between athletes and their families. Moms, dads, spouses and neighbors have agreed to let NBC place cameras in their living rooms to capture reaction as their Olympian competes.

A long-distance dance party

Some athletes brought a piece of home with them to Tokyo. Triathlete Kevin McDowell brought letters written by those close to him, opening them on the days leading up to his race. He saved letters from his parents, sister and grandparents for last. McDowell went on to finish sixth in Monday’s men’s triathlon, 10 years after beating cancer.

Moore brought a plumeria flower from her mom – an artificial one – that she wore in her hair Wednesday to reflect her Hawaiian flair.

USA TODAY reporter Josh Peter reported from Tsurigasaki Beach this week as surfing made its Olympic debut. While Moore has talked about battling her emotions in her surfing at times, Peter says her husband, Luke Untermann, is a calming presence who is a “very important part of her support team.”

Not having Untermann with her in Japan has been hard, Moore said.

“He’s kind of like that strong, constant voice that constantly lifts me up,” she said. “He believes in me sometimes more than I believe in myself.”

Before the quarterfinals, Moore called Untermann on FaceTime and asked him for a little dance party to take her mind off the competition.

“We both just listen to the same song and we kind of dance together,” Untermann told Peter, our reporter. “Usually when we have dance party, we’re together, we dance together. We’re kind of jamming along.’’

Plexiglass in the Olympic Village

Loneliness and isolation have been a part of these Games for many athletes, just like it has been for most of us living through 17 months of a pandemic.

Beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser told USA TODAY reporter Alex Ptachick that he was stuck in quarantine at a substandard hotel for days – without any workout equipment – until Team USA “busted me out of there and brought me to the Hilton.”

At a normal Games, athletes living in the Olympic Village get to hang out with teams from other countries and other sports. In Rio, American golfer Rickie Fowler was awestruck at seeing Phelps race. But the pandemic has taken away most opportunities to socialize freely with athletes from other countries.

For Haylie McCleney, an outfielder for the U.S softball team that won silver on Tuesday, life in the Olympic Village provided one highlight: getting to take a spin on Nyjah Huston’s skateboard. Huston competed for the U.S. as skateboarding made its Olympic debut.

“He was like, ‘Yo, go shred it.’ I’m never going to forget that moment, it was so frickin’ cool,” McCleney said.

For the most part, athletes eat in the village surrounded by plexiglass on three sides, pitcher Monica Abbott said, making it impossible to hold a conversation. She also lamented it has been a little disappointing playing in stadiums, “not having fans there to see the show that you’re putting on.”

Caeleb Dressel tosses his Olympic medal to teammate Brooks Curry after the men's 4x100 freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics. Curry swam in the relay preliminaries but not the final.
Caeleb Dressel tosses his Olympic medal to teammate Brooks Curry after the men's 4x100 freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics. Curry swam in the relay preliminaries but not the final.

Of course there have been moments of sheer joy when COVID-19 protocols have been temporarily forgotten or tossed aside altogether.

USA TODAY photographer Rob Schumacher captured the moment when U.S. swimming star Caeleb Dressel tossed his gold medal from the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay into the stands to his teammate Brooks Curry. Curry swam in the preliminary heats, but he didn’t get to race in the final. (Curry would later get a gold of his own for swimming in the prelims.)

It was a cool act by Dressel, but not everyone knew his intent. “The volunteers were horrified when they saw him climb into the stands and pitch the gold medal in the air,” Schumacher said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Roxanna Scott is USA TODAY Sports managing editor. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer Olympic athletes find love, support far from Tokyo