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For U.S. women’s national team and Orlando Pride star Alex Morgan, the Olympics always have stood apart.
The striker first carved herself into the American soccer narrative in the 2012 Olympics, stamping her mark at Wembley Stadium with last-minute game-winners.
As Morgan approaches her third Olympic Games in Tokyo next week, the star is chasing the memory of that podium feeling from nearly a decade ago.
“The gold medal from 2012, I cherish it,” Morgan said. “It was an incredible team.”
On a veteran American team, Morgan is one of the players most familiar with the Olympic tournament. But this year will be markedly different as Tokyo organizers navigate the current status of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
Fewer than 20% of Japanese citizens have received the COVID-19 pandemic, and cases are skyrocketing in major city centers including Tokyo. The country closed all competitions in Tokyo to fans and restricted out-of-country visitors for games, including the families of Olympic athletes.
These restrictions also limited Morgan — the only mother on the 2021 Olympic roster — from bringing her 1-year-old daughter Charlie to Japan.
Without the typical slew of family, friends and fans in the stadium, Morgan said the team will have to provide their own forms of support to one another throughout the tournament.
“Honestly, we’re going to have to rally each other,” Morgan said. “You’re gonna hear the players on the bench, you’re gonna hear each other so much more clearly. ... It’ll be really different but we have to be able to imitate fans around us and that kind of energy. ... We have to know that our families and everyone are supporting us back home and give our best every game because every team is going to play their best against us.”
Despite the unique restrictions of this Olympic Games, U.S. Soccer attempted to create a typical pre-tournament environment by taking the team to Miyazaki — a city on the island of Kyushu — for a week before the tournament began.
During this time, the Americans acclimated to the new time zone and the Japanese summer heat. After spending a full week training and living together, Morgan said the team felt familiar and comfortable together.
“We can’t even go outside the hotel, so it’s lots of team bonding,” Morgan said. “We’re lucky to be able to do this. A lot of teams haven’t even arrived yet. ... With the small turnover of players on this team, it’s similar to 2019. We have a lot of chemistry.”
In Tokyo, the Americans are aiming for a groundbreaking accomplishment — becoming the first soccer team to win back-to-back World Cup and Olympic titles.
But this team also inherited the years-long sting of disappointment from the U.S. women’s national team’s last outing at the Olympics.
The Americans entered the 2016 Olympics high on their World Cup glory and fully favorited to take home the gold medal. Instead, the team was bounced out in the opening round of knockout play by Sweden in a penalty-kick upset.
Since that loss, Morgan and the players remaining from that team — who account for half of the current roster — have been hungry to avenge the loss. They’ll get a chance to do so immediately in the opening match of the Olympics next Wednesday with a rematch between the U.S. and Sweden.
Although she said the team aims to remain levelheaded, Morgan said that memory fuels the team’s current energy.
“It’s just about focusing and looking toward the gold medal and just chipping away,” Morgan said. “It’s gonna be a long tournament and without our family, without friends, we only have each other here. ... For me, it’s [about] looking to get that gold medal that we didn’t really come close to in 2016.”
For Morgan, this tournament has been a long-time target. Even with her daughter’s birth scheduled for last May, Morgan always planned on competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
The postponement only gave the striker an extra year to train, compete and grow, scoring four goals for the Orlando Pride and three goals for the Americans since giving birth to her daughter.
Now Morgan is eager to chase gold with an American team familiar with winning.
“I want to feel that experience again,” Morgan said. “Most people don’t even get to experience that once in their lifetime. To get the opportunity to be able to possibly experience that twice, I’m going to do everything to put us there.”