TOKYO — The rules are very clear. No parents, children, spouses or friends of Olympians are allowed to travel to Tokyo for the Summer Games.
Cathy and Tom Condie managed to sneak in. The couple from Shoreview arrived with their daughter, Kyra, at the hotel outside Tokyo where the U.S. Olympic climbing team is staying. Kyra opened her luggage, and there they were: two yarn dolls, made to look just like her parents, to remind her they're still supporting her all the way from Minnesota.
"A friend made these for Kyra so she could feel like we were there,'' Cathy Condie said. "She also made a little yarn cupcake, and when you press a button, there's a recording of us cheering for Kyra. When Kyra got it, she burst into tears.''
Already delayed a year by the pandemic, the Tokyo Games are being held under unprecedented restrictions in a country where COVID-19 cases are surging. Athletes accustomed to seeing their families in the stands are surrounded by empty seats, plexiglass dividers and signs reminding of the mask mandate.
Behind these stark scenes, though, are other extraordinary ones of athletes from around the world determined to keep the hallmarks of the Games alive.
The Olympic spirit, that hard-to-define vibe, not only remains, it has intensified in more than one locked-down hotel and masked-up training room.
Some athletes are coping mostly by keeping in close touch with people back home. Others have come to rely more on their teammates, who have become like family, given all the time they're spending together. Away from the many cameras and in small groups, athletes have found ways to bond, let loose and even create do-it-ourselves celebrations. The best example yet: The U.S. men's and women's gymnastics teams and the women's soccer team held their own versions of the Opening Ceremony, marching around their hotels.
The bonding isn't restricted by borders, either, with competitors in Tokyo supporting each other, opponents supporting opponents. An American gymnast fist-bumping a Russian gymnast one day, a surfer hugging another in waist-deep water the other. While sportsmanship isn't hard to find at any Olympics, it's shining in Tokyo.
And because it's 2021, we all can watch some of this bonding. Scan social media and it's hard to miss an Olympian. Perhaps to fight boredom or isolation, athletes are sharing photos and videos everywhere from hotel rooms to competition arenas.
St. Paul's Suni Lee was a megahit on the video-sharing social network TikTok just before and just after winning her gymnastics gold medal on Thursday. There she was, dancing in her hotel room with her prize, next to a half-empty pizza box. Fans and followers might be feeling more connected than ever as these famous faces pop onto phone screens at every swipe.
These storylines all came together for five seconds Thursday with the world watching. The three medal-winning all-around gymnasts posed for a selfie together, snapped on Lee's phone, smiling under their masks.
Making it work
This connectedness is happening in circumstances that range from dangerous to difficult. The fun that is had is mostly hidden away. Olympic officials have tried to create a bubble atmosphere to lower the risk of infection, further isolating athletes. They are advised to eat alone and only leave their accommodations for training and competition.
Kyra Condie has sent her parents pictures of the team's pre-Olympic base in Hachioji, Japan. "They are very restricted,'' Cathy said. The team is confined to two floors of the hotel, and food is brought in.
To help with the boredom, the Condies sent their daughter four 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. "We should have sent more,'' Cathy said. "(The team) got them done in the first four days. It's a very different experience.''
It's an experience that Mason Ferlic, the former Roseville running star, is trying to soak up despite the restrictions. The facilities, the atmosphere — heck, even the food — at and around the Village are "amazing," Mason told his father, Mike.
Father and son spoke Tuesday, two days before Mason competed in his specialty, the intense 3,000-meter steeplechase, finishing 21st overall. His family, including mom Char and brothers Evan and Nolan, and friends took it in at a watch party at Mounds Park Academy.
The experiences have transcended Ferlic's result. "[Mason] is feeling very patriotic," Mike said. "Ever since he made the Olympics, it is just a very interesting state of mind that you are representing the country."
Alise Willoughby, the BMX star from St. Cloud, thinks of herself as fortunate. Her husband, Sam, is also her coach, so she was allowed to have him as both family and support staff in the stands as she competed in the boiling heat at the Ariake Urban Sports Arena. "I feel lucky to have him here,'' she said. "I just hope we can find him an umbrella.''
Regan Smith's representation of America has included three medals in swimming. The 19-year-old Lakeville native has not found Olympics Village life too stifling, saying it's tough not having her family in Tokyo to support her but that she was "definitely prepared for it.''
Smith is texting with her dad every morning and evening. Her family has held get-togethers at their home for people to gather and watch her races. Knowing they are cheering for her in Minnesota is still uplifting, she said, even though they are thousands of miles away.
"I'm really, really excited to go home and see everyone,'' said Smith, who won silver Saturday night in the women's 4x100 medley relay as well as silver in the 200-meter butterfly and bronze in the 100 backstroke last week. "It's a shame they're not able to be here, but I think that will make the reunion that much sweeter.''
In Minnesota and elsewhere, parents and loved ones are ditching sleep schedules and logging long hours on devices to stay connected. And the support goes both ways. Family members are missing an experience that is the highlight of so many athletes' careers.
Cathy Condie is staying in touch with Kyra via phone, text and FaceTime. The U.S. climbing team coaches have been posting photos and videos on social media so families and fans can see what the athletes are doing. And the Condies were one of many families that participated in an effort organized before the Games to get letters from home in the hands of U.S. athletes when they arrived in the Village.
NBC brought athletes' families together for a series of "friends and family'' events in Orlando with large communal viewing parties. The Condies were there to watch the Opening Ceremony and found camaraderie in others who shared their experience.
"It was so cool to meet other parents in the same situation,'' Cathy said. "We got to cheer for their kids. That made me feel so much better about everything, knowing we're all in the same boat. It helped us feel connected to the Olympics and what's happening.''
When Lee struck gold Thursday, a crowded watch party in Oakdale erupted. "I wish I could give her a big hug right now," Lee's sister Shyenne said, "I've been texting her all day today."
Then her phone buzzed and she screamed. It was Suni, on FaceTime. Shyenne told her sister to "Breathe!" and spun the phone around to capture the cheering crowd.
In the biggest moment of these Olympics so far, two sisters 6,000 miles apart smiled at each other on the phone, one in Oakdale and the other one moment from ascending a podium to listen to the national anthem.
Star Tribune writers Jim Souhan, Bob Timmons and Zoe Jackson contributed to this article.