Water Polo Star Johnny Hooper Talks Missing His Japanese Grandma Cheer for Him in the Stands in Tokyo

"It would have been amazing," men's water polo player Johnny Hooper told PEOPLE — "but you gotta be flexible and adjust"

Johnny Hooper's grandmother waited very patiently to one day watch him play water polo on the world's biggest sporting stage.

"She wants to see me in the Olympics very, very, very badly," he said in 2019.

And then came COVID-19.

Pandemic restrictions at the Tokyo Summer Games, which officially began Friday night in Japan, have basically barred all spectators — including friends and family. Even loved ones like Hooper's grandmother Tomiko Nagatani, who lives in a retirement home an hour from Tokyo in Chigasaki, aren't allowed in the stands.

"I was looking forward, obviously, to having her in the stands. Being her only grandson to play in this first Olympic Games here in Tokyo, it would have been amazing [for her to attend]," Hooper, a dual American-Japanese citizen, told PEOPLE on Friday ahead of the first men's water polo game this weekend.

"But you gotta be flexible and adjust. You got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Hooper, 24, said.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Athletes
Johnny Hooper.
Johnny Hooper
Johnny Hooper (center) competing in 2016. Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty

He even told his mom, Mimi, "to just stay back because I didn't want her to have to watch the games here on a TV. I'd rather her be home and comfortable watching with friends and family, supporting her son there."

The absence of loved ones — a necessary public health precaution — has weighed on different athletes in different ways. For some, as Hooper said, it was just another adjustment after so many others.

Women's rugby player Nicole Heavirland pointed out that their international competitions often involve dramatic time-shifts back to the U.S.: "My family's used to waking up at odd hours of the night and for this go, they're gonna rent a space at the local bar and have everyone come through."

("You only have to wake up for 14 minutes at a time so it's not too hard to watch," her teammate Jordan Matyas added playfully.)

Members of the women's rugby team also told PEOPLE that they were grateful for a "really special event" organized by Team USA and NBC, where they can send two friends or family to Orlando, Florida, to follow the games there in an atmosphere something like what they would have had in Japan.

Ben Hallock, Hooper's water polo teammate, said his parents would be there, too.

"I know everyone here is so super tightly knit and I think that all of us have each other's families behind us," Hooper said, "and that's probably the best experience, knowing that we have that back home."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.

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