LOS ANGELES – There’s not much that can compare to the intensity of world-class competition at the Olympic Games, but the heat in downtown Los Angeles on a July afternoon comes close. Fortunately, Team USA’s athletes were plenty prepared to persevere through the weather in Little Tokyo for an event celebrating the “2 Years to Tokyo” push.
About 115 kids — 50 from the Little Tokyo Service Center, the rest through the SoCal Supreme youth basketball program — came out to the James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center on Tuesday to partake in a basketball clinic and meet some of their Olympic heroes aboard the Team USA Social Media Truck, presented by Oreo, before the athletes dive head-first into preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“Being with the kids and motivating them and being with other Olympic athletes, it definitely brings back that desire to represent the U.S. on that stage,” said Dana Vollmer, a seven-time Olympic medalist and three-time Olympian in swimming.
Though Vollmer’s skills are best deployed in the pool, she wasn’t entirely a fish out of water at the event. For one, she played hoops through middle school. And like all of the athletes on hand — save for maybe UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson — Vollmer won’t be an Olympian on the hardwood.
“I feel like they’re all pretty athletic and I think they’ve grown up playing sports,” said Samuelson, a 2014 Youth Olympic Games gold medalist. “Maybe they’re not necessarily the best at basketball, but they’re good with the kids and making sure everyone’s active.”
The kids had no trouble staying on their toes. After some light warm-ups and stretching, they rotated from station to station, from dribbling to passing to shooting. Once they had all made the rounds, they settled down under a white pop-up canopy to munch on some spam musubi — a Hawaiian snack based on Japanese omusubi (rice balls) — while the athletes offered their advice from the podium.
“It’s great that we have athletes not just from one sport, but we span across multiple sports just to get different kids’ interests,” said Kendall Ellis, a 2017 world champion in the 4x400 meter. “Come out here, inspire them. They can see real live Olympians, not just on TV, that they get to see right in front of them and know that it’s possible for them to do the same thing.”
Ellis hopes to be part of America’s next Olympic track and field team, and can fully dedicate herself to qualifying, like most of her peers, now that she’s done competing collegiately at USC.
“It’s the halfway mark,” she said. “Not that you should just start preparing two years out, but this is kind of the wake-up call where it’s like, OK, this is real, this is happening. It’s time to kick it up into high gear if you haven’t already and just know that it’s fast approaching.”
Other athletes in attendance included rugby player Carlin Isles, and water polo players Alex Bowen, Ashleigh Johnson, Jesse Smith and Maggie Steffens.
As much as this event, like Monday night’s women’s volleyball friendly between Team USA and Japan in Anaheim, was about the next Olympic Games, the air was also heavy with the specter of the 2028 Games in LA. By the time those Games come around, some of the 8- to 10-year-olds who were busy running around and testing their basketball abilities could be the ones competing for medals in a variety of sports on their home soil.
For Isles, who tried his hand at track and in the NFL before settling solely on rugby, spending time with the kids was an opportunity to spark a sporting interest in someone who could be going for gold in the City of Angels a decade from now.
“I can be that light in that tunnel for them to say, ‘Hey, maybe I’d like to try another sport, I can try this sport,’” Isles said. “To be in 2028 doing it in rugby and one of them could be right here and be like, ‘Hey, you inspired me to pursue that dream,’ it’s a blessing to me.”
As the sun set on Little Tokyo and all the kids finished collecting autographs and Oreos from the Social Media Truck, the athletes were not yet done for the day. With Spirit, the Team USA Teddy Bear, by their side, they moved on down to the road to Staples Center, where they would be recognized and honored during a Los Angeles Sparks game, looking to spread their inspiration to yet another eager audience across Southern California’s fertile soil of future Olympians.