This article was first written for and published by the Roar.
The 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games will be like no other Olympic Games before it.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the atmosphere in the Olympic village will be limited. There are unlikely to be any spectators watching live and athletes will be subject to rigorous protocols including a COVID-19 test each day and a requirement to leave Tokyo as soon as they have finished competing.
For some athletes these restrictions may pose a challenge, but for Rosemary Popa, the lack of distraction has only made her more determined.
Popa is heading to her first Olympic Games to represent Australia in rowing, carrying on a family legacy which saw her parents Sue Chapman-Popa and Ion Popa medal for Australia at Los Angeles 1984.
“I’m trying not to think too far ahead because at the moment I am not nervous or scared, I am just excited about competing,” says Popa.
“These restrictions mean that I won’t be able to watch other sports or spend as much time with other athletes. In a way it strips it right back to what the Olympic Games are all about, competing and putting your best foot forward.
“In a way it’s reminded me of why I row in the first place.”
Given her parents’ success in the sport, you could be forgiven for thinking that Popa had no choice but to take up rowing. But that wasn’t the case.
“I remember my dad sitting me down when I was younger, asking me whether I wanted to row because it was a really hard sport,” says Popa.
Popa did other sports when she was younger, including playing basketball at an elite level. But after she stopped growing, she turned to rowing. She always had the support of her parents, without feeling any pressure from them.
“Through my high school years, I never felt like I was the daughter of two Olympic rowers and I never felt any pressure to row,” says Popa.
“Instead, my parents just guided me when I needed them, whether that was finding the right club or coach.
“Mum and dad were always there when I wanted or needed advice. I feel like it’s a really healthy relationship.”
In fact, Popa credits her parents for helping her find her way back to the sport after a difficult period in 2016 where she was pushing for Olympic selection but missed out.
“I had been injured in the lead up to selection and after missing out, I thought I was done,” says Popa.
“It was a tough period, but my parents respected me during that time and slowly let me heal.
“With them gently supporting me, I realised that rowing was still something that I wanted to do.”
Because of that challenging period when Popa missed Rio and then the subsequent postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games, Tokyo almost felt out of reach for Popa.
“It has been like a mirage for the last two years,” says Popa.
“The closer I seemed to get, the further away it appeared.”
But now that Popa has her ticket to Tokyo she has a steely determination on the task at hand and is thrilled to be competing alongside her teammates for Australia.
“It’s great now to finally be at this point where we are no longer competing with each other for selection, this is the team and we are one team now,” says Popa.
“What I am most excited about is the team performing to a level that we know we are capable of.
“We have all worked so hard, have a strong respect for each other and we all know our roles. We just want to be the best versions of ourselves both in and out of the water.”
To help the team be in the best possible shape both physically and mentally, the squad has been working with their team psychologist every couple of weeks and in particular, focusing on mindfulness.
For Popa and many other athletes, their mental wellbeing will be crucial in an Olympic Games that is different to the ones that have come before.
“We have been given the chance to open up and talk about what feelings could arise during the Games,” says Popa.
“I have come to understand that feeling excited and feeling nervous can almost feel like the same thing and that feeling that way is completely normal.
“As a crew in the women’s four we sit with the psychologist every few weeks and talk through things, even if we don’t think there is anything to talk about.”
The squad has also been practising visualisation.
“In our crew, we have been running through the race plan and the various scenarios,” says Popa.
“We think about where we want to be at certain points and imagine what it will feel like.
“We are working through as many of the possible scenarios as possible so we can be as prepared as possible come race day.”