FARGO — It was three years ago when Payton Otterdahl took a vacation to Japan. His old friend since middle school and college roommate after all, Kouta Sugii, has several family members living in the country and the trip was a great way to further connect to his heritage.
Otterdahl and Sugii traveled the country including meeting Sugii’s 88-year-old grandmother. The goal of course was for Otterdahl to return to Japan in 2020 as a member of the United States Olympic track and field team in the shot put.
The former North Dakota State national champion accomplished that goal sidestepping the many obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Olympics were delayed a year but last month, Otterdahl reached a feat that very few do.
He leaves July 24 from Hector International Airport in Fargo with one stop in Chicago on his way to Tokyo.
“I’m just super excited, for so long and basically my whole life the ultimate thing was to make the Olympic team,” Otterdahl said.
The pandemic, however, is still providing interruptions. It’s raging in Japan these days and the Japanese government is prohibiting spectators at all events. That includes Sugii’s grandmother, now 91 years old.
“I’m bummed,” Otterdahl said. “But as long as I can compete and they don’t cancel the Olympics, they can do whatever they want.”
It was a foregone conclusion even before the United States Olympic Trials that fans wouldn’t be allowed to travel internationally to Japan. It made that day in Eugene, Ore., all the more special for the family and friends that were there — knowing they wouldn’t be able to see Otterdahl in Tokyo.
“We knew that was our opportunity to be with him at that time and to celebrate that because we knew we weren’t going to be able to go to Japan,” said Shannon Otterdahl, Payton’s mother. “It was an amazing experience and we were all so thrilled and happy and crying to see it.”
On the flipside, Shannon had been saving money for a trip to Japan in case Payton made it. She works in the Twin Cities for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap,” she said. “It was even a joke with my boss; make sure you put that bonus money away for the trip to Japan. We’d been saving, hoping the two boys could come with me and support their brother. We’ll have to wait another three years I guess.”
The two boys, Trevor and Max Otterdahl, are throwers in the NDSU track and field program.
The only person in the Otterdahl party who can go to Japan is his coach, Justin St. Clair. Otherwise, a host of family and friends who told Payton they would pay whatever it takes to see him throw in the Olympics in person will have to remain in the United States and watch it on television.
If the COVID-19 fear seems to be diminishing in this country, it is anything but in Japan. The Olympics begin on July 23 and will do so with Japan in a state of emergency. It began on Tuesday and is scheduled to last through Aug. 22. The measures are so strict that fans have been banned from watching the marathon along the 26.2-mile route.
Every Olympic athlete will be required to take two separate COVID-19 tests within 96 hours before departing for Japan.
“It was hard to bank on going,” said Trevor Otterdahl. “I would have done everything to go had spectators been allowed. We all would have done whatever we could to go. It’s unfortunate but I’d still rather have the Olympics than no Olympics.”
Trevor and Payton were NDSU teammates for two years. Trevor said it was “weird” watching Payton throw at the beginning of his professional career and the feeling will probably be the same watching him on TV in Tokyo.
“Payton does well in a good environment with a lot of fans and noise and cheering,” he said. “All of those athletes will have to create their own environment over there.”
The men’s shot put qualifying round begins Aug. 3. Shannon said the hope is to have some sort of watch party with friends and family — even if the event begins at 5:15 a.m. CST.
The final round is on Aug. 5. Once Otterdahl arrives in Japan, his mobility will be prohibited to the Olympic village, the shot put practice facility and the Olympic venue.
“That’s it,” he said. “You don’t get to go into Tokyo at all. Luckily I’ve been there before but I’m bummed I won’t be able to do the things I wanted to do the last time I was there.”
Otterdahl was in Lincoln, Neb. this week training with St. Clair, who took an assistant coaching position with the University of Nebraska after 10 years at NDSU. Otterdahl plans on moving to Lincoln after the Olympics are over.
By then, his family and friends will have spent a lot of nervous energy watching him on TV.
“It’s been a whirlwind with everything that’s going on,” Shannon said. “There are so many people that are so interested; everybody is thrilled. People are coming out of the woodwork because they know of him or me or somebody in the family.”