From a last-minute plane ticket to heart surgery, Blacksburg native Ian Ho’s path to Tokyo took many twists and turns

Japan 2020

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Becoming an Olympian is never easy, but Blacksburg native Ian Ho’s path to Tokyo had a unique set of twists and turns that even a Hollywood director couldn’t orchestrate.

“Just talking about all the things that have happened in this past year and a half were absolutely absurd,” Ian said.

When he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics last month in Hong Kong, his parents were watching from the other side of the world in Blacksburg at 5 a.m. on June 20.

“We stayed up. I didn’t sleep,” Ian’s mother, Sonya, said. “I was just waiting for five o’clock so I can get up and turn on my phone.”

The accomplishment was a culmination of a journey that once seemed out of reach when Ian learned in January 2020 that he wasn’t even eligible to compete for Hong Kong.

A split decision to leave for Hong Kong

“They have a residency rule that they told me about last minute and so I wouldn’t have been able to go,” Ian said. “I actually found out that I can’t represent Hong Kong, because I haven’t lived in Hong Kong for one year.”

However, Ian still had plans to swim in international meets that year, including one in April 2020. But those plans were turned upside down because of COVID-19.

“As the pandemic progresses, we listened to Hong Kong news, we realized that Hong Kong is planning on closing their border on March 19,” Ian’s father, Caisy, said. “He still need to go to Hong Kong to race. In a few hours time, we bought a ticket and say we’re going, in a few hours. And he landed in Hong Kong a few hours before the borders closed.”

The meet Ian planned to swim in was eventually canceled and the Olympics were postponed by a year. That became a silver lining for Ian, who suddenly had extra time to fulfill his residency requirement.

His parents recall being on the phone with him to discuss Ian’s next steps after his coach asked him to stay in Hong Kong for a whole year.

“We just asked him what would hold you back here (in Blacksburg)?” Sonya said. “Are you really able to stay in Hong Kong?”

With training facilities closed in the United States, though, Ian had no choice.

“With the pandemic happening I actually got trapped here,” Ian said. “I ended up forming a nice group of training in the same situation as me being able to come back to Hong Kong to train in a closed environment.”

Back in Blacksburg, Sonya and Caisy gave Ian their full support.

“We think, ‘It’s just one year. You probably wont’ have a chance like this in a lifetime. So if you want to pursue it, go for it.”

Another pause in Ian’s preparations

Hong Kong became Ian’s home away from home. However, with months to go until the Tokyo Olympics, Ian suffered another setback.

“I had a health checkup in February where they told me I had to get heart surgery before they would allow me to swim,” Ian said.

Ian had an irregular heartbeat that needed to addressed. The procedure put another pause in his preparations.

“In order to make sure I wouldn’t die, they had to do surgery. So that happened in February,” Ian said.

The procedure may have had a greater impact on his parents.

“Those three weeks were stressful. We were on the phone with him a lot. It was also during lockdown so to me it was a mental hurdle,” Sonya said. “He has to do this procedure or else we cannot let him swim anymore so it just came down to that.”

Ian did return to the pool, though. Five months later, he’s Tokyo bound. It’s a journey he and his parents have endured together, albeit on different continents.

“I know this is a huge accomplishment and wonderful news,” Sonya said. “But my son is so far away, it’s like the other side of the world so it feels a little strange also.”

It hasn’t been easy on Ian either.

“Tt’s been okay. Not to say that I don’t miss them or don’t wish they could be here with me,” Ian said. “They’ve honestly been so great and supported me through this entire thing.”

While Sonya and Caisy will be watching with anticipation from the other side of the globe when Ian hits the pool in the preliminaries of the 50 meter freestyle on July 30 in Tokyo, they also can’t wait to see him come back home.

“I’m happy. I’m super happy for him,” Sonya said. “I can’t wait to see him”

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