ORLANDO, Florida (AP) – Christina Dressel started organizing the space long before the NBC cameras got rolling.
The mother of swimming superstar Caeleb Dressel uncoiled a provisional seating plan for the couch, showed everyone who wanted to be on TV where they should stand and even combed the posh hotel for life-size cardboard clippings of her son. She found four and placed them behind the 40-strong Dressel troop.
Then she asked if the coffee table was cluttered with empty wine glasses and water bottles. Lower Austria. After all, it was an accurate representation of that party scene.
The Dressels were among hundreds who accepted an offer to spend part of the Tokyo Olympics at Universal Orlando with other equally disappointed friends and families of American athletes, all of whom were banned from traveling to Japan due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They gathered in a crowded resort ballroom nearly 12,000 miles from Tokyo with hundreds of strangers – at least initially – and created a red, white, and blue blowout that went along with anything they might have experienced overseas.
It turned out to be a support system like no other.
“These people are great,” said Venus Jewett, whose son Isaiah failed to make it to the 800m final after tangling his feet with another runner in the semifinals. “You get it. … Being here is not like there, but it is a good consolation prize. You can’t get much better. “
Parents, siblings, friends and former teammates crowd into the ballroom at Lowes Sapphire Falls Resort daily to watch the Summer Games and connect with others in a similar situation.
They spend mornings and evenings together, laughing and laughing, eating and drinking, screaming and cheering. They usually celebrate and occasionally comfort.
Team Dressel was the main event during the swimming competition, in which Christina Dressel and Caeleb’s photogenic wife Meghan were the focus for a whole week.
Universal Orlando and NBC invited The Associated Press for a glimpse into the night Dressel set a world record in the 100-meter butterfly and won his third of five gold medals at the Tokyo Games. Most of his crew wore red Speedo T-shirts with Team Dressel printed on the back.
They posed for pictures on stage, shoulder to shoulder under a Team USA banner, and led the “USA, USA” cheer that became a nightly entry into NBC television coverage.
Christina Dressel silenced the noisy crowd as soon as her son walked into the pool area half a world away, eager to hear everything the commentators had to say about her son.
Dressel’s close circle – his mother, father, wife, sister, and brother – were right in front of one of two billboard-sized projection screens in the ballroom. Christina and Meghan got up right at the start of the race. His sister joined them. His father and brother reluctantly followed.
The roar soared as Dressel first made the turn to break the world record. His mother ducked behind his father for a few seconds, too nervous to watch. But she quickly popped up and started jumping up and down when it became clear that Dressel was about to make history.
Christina and Meghan collapsed on the couch when Dressel first touched the wall. The celebration was just getting started. Mom eventually hugged everyone around her, including Dressel’s Orlando agent, who videotaped the rowdy scene for a documentary about his pandemic-altered path to Olympic glory.
Dressel drove two more races that evening, finished first in a 50-meter freestyle semi-final and anchored the 4×100-meter mixed-location relay, which finished in a disappointing fifth place. Team Dressel worked hard for both of them.
Dressel’s family members rented a house in Orlando and routinely used the Hospitality Lounge, which was open every morning for breakfast and dinner and had an open bar in the evening. The emotional video of them trying to chat with Dressel after winning his second gold medal went viral, bringing extra attention to the family and the venue.
Universal Orlando, NBC, the US Olympic Committee and two sponsors, including Japanese automaker Toyota, offered each Team USA athlete airline tickets and four days of accommodation for two family members or friends to the resort and Universal’s three theme parks. You had the opportunity to purchase additional passes.
The lounge serves as its own entertainment district, a fully stocked bar in the middle of the ballroom, and TVs and tables in all directions. Toyota exhibited several cars, including one that could be taken for a virtual test drive and one with a colorful paint job inspired by Dressel’s tattoos. There are also games galore; Table tennis, cornhole, a huge “four to score” board and an extra large Jenga setup.
But these other games get a lot more attention.
Jewett took her 17-year-old daughter, 82-year-old mother, and 79-year-old father to the hotel for several days. A former college sprinter and current fifth grade teacher in Inglewood, California, Jewett had saved up for years to travel to Tokyo with her son.
Even after a year of delay and seemingly endless uncertainty, she was as devastated as any Olympic parent when Japan decided to ban spectators. She settled down for Orlando, made new friends, and created lifelong memories.
She was in the lounge when Katie Plum’s daughter Kelsey led the United States to a gold medal in 3-on-3 basketball.
“It’s sad not to be there,” said Katie Plum, who moved to Las Vegas from San Diego to be closer to her WNBA daughter. “But it made it a lot of fun and I learned a lot. But of course I would like to be at the USA House in Tokyo. I’m just grateful that they had to go. “
Plum and her family spent two days at Universal Orlando and proudly offered to show off a voicemail from Jill Biden congratulating them on Kelsey’s gold. How did she miss a call from the first lady?
“We waited in line at Harry Potter,” she said with a laugh and shook her head.
She didn’t miss nearly as much while visiting the lounge and engaging in rugby, rowing, athletics, and other sports.
“We were on all kinds of (emotional) trains,” she said. “In the end, you try to support everyone you meet. And you appreciate it when people want to invest in your child and watch. So you want to give something back and sit next to someone’s couch. I’ve seen some great games, things I might not have seen otherwise. “
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