MeiMei White competes in the butterfly. (Photo: Peter Bick)
With people masked during the COVID-19, smiling at strangers has become harder. Smizing, or smiling with one's eyes, isn't the same.
“You don’t know what people are going through,” MeiMei White said. “Just giving a random stranger a smile is always kind of nice to do. … You just can’t really tell with a mask.”
White is vying for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in September. She recently moved to Colorado Springs to train at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center (USOPTC) with her fellow Team USA Para swimmers. But she misses some of the social and culinary opportunities of her previous homes.
As a kid, White loved going to the mall with friends. She used to live in Orlando, Florida, where she enjoyed visiting the Park Avenue area with its 140 cafes, restaurants and shops. It was about a five-minute bike ride from White’s house.
White and her family later moved to Athens, Ga., to further her swimming career. While she doesn’t have access to Park Avenue, a Korean barbecue restaurant about 20 minutes from her family’s home has been a big hit.
White said she does not have any problems wearing masks, but she said she is looking forward to the time when her high-risk friends can safely return to their regular routines.
“I have a lot of friends who can’t go out regularly,” she said. “I’m looking forward for them being able to go out, and see people.”
Sarah Bofinger is another first-time Team USA Para swimmer. She, like White, is lining up a probable shot at Tokyo 2020.
Bofinger, who goes by @Mergoddess11 on Instagram, lives and practices in Maryland. She is choosing to view the pandemic as a learning experience.
“I look forward to resuming life as we knew it,” Bofinger said. “I trust this new phase of our lives will be even better.”
Mallory Weggemann, a two-time Paralympian, said new routines could wind up proving beneficial in unexpected ways.
“We have grown this past year,” she said. “I look at what our world has gone through, and I think that we are going to create a new normal. I think there’s going to be things that we adapt into our new way of living that are different now.”
White said her schedule changes everyday. She typically swims twice a day three times a week, and lifts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She takes “a lot of naps,” and then jumps into homework after swimming practices.
Bofinger lives and trains in Maryland. She competed in the TYR Pro Swim Series in the middle of January. She met swim coach Wilma Wong at the event. She has since started doing “knees over toes” workouts and “super-human breathing.”
Bofinger said she has been setting new PRs in practice.
“My body is responding to this training,” Bofinger wrote in her blog. “My legs are stronger, I’m gaining flexibility, and I’m learning what muscles to activate to get a better stroke."
White pointed out one restriction that has yet to be lifted. Spectators will not be allowed attheir meets prior to Tokyo. While there are not usually packed crowds at these events, White appreciates having fans in the stands.
“A lot of people find it nerve-racking when there’s a big crowd,” White said. “It gives me an extra boost of adrenaline. I love how exciting it can get.”
As for the question of whether spectators will be allowed at the Tokyo Games, Japan remains in a state of emergency, and the country is limiting foreign travelers entering the country. Kyodo News reported on March 9 that foreign spectators will not be allowed at the Games. This might be disappointing news to White’s brother, Keegan, for the time being
“My brother probably told me two years (ago), ‘I’m already saving money for tickets to Tokyo,’” White recalled. “I’m like, ‘Well, what if I don’t make it?’ ‘Well, we’ll use it to go Tokyo anyway.’”
Keegan was a big supporter of MeiMei's during her mental health struggles last year when she was having suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-harm. Keegan rushed to her assistance in the middle of the night. MeiMei is feeling better, and the reduced COVID restrictions have helped.
Whether spectators are allowed to attend the Games or not, Weggemann said she sees the pandemic as a reminder of the power of connecting with others.
“As a society, we have changed, and I am hoping we have changed in a positive way in realizing the power of community more than ever,” she said. “With that, I’m most looking forward to start to come together; to physically be in a space with people; and to be able to see family, loved ones who I haven’t seen in a year, year and a half due to the pandemic.
“I’m really looking forward to the simplicity of being able to give loved ones and friends hugs.”