American Olympic rowing team enforced the COVID-19 outbreak in a pandemic



PRINCETON, NJ – For three-time world rowing champion Olivia Coffey, feeling motivated to get a workout is usually not an issue. But on a Tuesday at the end of March last year, the US women’s eighth’s stroke seat was looking for all excuses to get out of a run.

Mentally she felt bad. Who wouldn’t The Tokyo Olympics had been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 concerns, adding more time to the four-year event where the selection camp was just weeks away. Coffey assumed her state of mind was a reaction to the disappointing news.

Coffey struggled to shake off her emotions as she and her teammate Elizabeth Sonshine struggled to jog along the towpath on the edge of the Delaware and Raritan Canal in Princeton, New Jersey.

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“I kept trying to figure out reasons why she should quit,” Coffey told USA TODAY Sports. “I thought, ‘Oh, there was a goose up the path. Let’s go.’ Or like: “Do you see this stick? Let me move this stick. ‘ And what I wasn’t aware of was that I was actually pretty sick. “

Coffey eventually learned she was part of a COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S. women’s team at her boathouse in Princeton. Twelve athletes, about a third of the team, reported symptoms of the virus just three weeks after the first known case was reported in the state. The team’s focus quickly shifted from preparing for the Olympics – where the American women’s eighth in Tokyo went for their fourth consecutive Olympic gold – to ensuring the health and safety of athletes.

At the root of the outbreak lay team physical therapist Marc Nowak, who presented the symptoms of the virus to the team’s medical commission at 12:40 p.m. on March 23 that afternoon and the next day, US Rowing identified its first positive results.

“Everyone at the training center was notified, and at that point we really didn’t have a good sense of the symptoms of COVID other than an upper respiratory viral infection, for example,” Wenger said. “So the message to the team is literally: Any symptoms, anything that is abnormal, please let me know and we’ll talk about what’s going on.”

Lie in bed for eight days

Almost the entire team was exposed to Nowak. Coffey reported symptoms, as did Kendall Chase, who will compete in a four without a helmsman at the Tokyo Olympics. At first Chase thought her sore throat, pain, and lightheadedness were signs of a cold. The next morning she couldn’t get out of bed and had a throbbing headache.

“I never had a fever, but I just lay in my bed – I don’t think I did anything for eight days,” Chase said. “What I never had eight days off from anything in my entire rowing career, and in my athletic career in general, in high school.”

Wenger and the medical commission instructed the suspected coronavirus-positive athletes to rest and recover for as long as they deemed necessary before they could resume their activity. For Olympic hopefuls who are used to getting through minor illnesses, it’s like telling a toddler in a candy store not to touch anything.

However, COVID-19 is not an easy disease. At one point, Chase tried to go for a walk. She made it out the door 30 seconds before the sunlight hit her eyes and pounded her head. Coffey was so tired she couldn’t cut a carrot or walk up a hill for two weeks.

But there was no rush to return. A week after Nowak tested positive, the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Olympics for a year.

“We don’t have to force you to do anything,” said Matt Imes, US Rowing’s senior executive director. “A year is a lot of time. We want you to be in an environment in which you feel safe and in which you have the feeling that if you have to continue training at this point, you can do so safely and in which you feel comfortable. “

Most national team members traveled to their hometowns during the shutdown, but some stayed with their host families in Princeton. US Rowing loaned out ergometers, indoor rowing machines, to athletes who wanted them. Rowers could also take home free weights.

When it came to developing a return to play plan for those recovering from the virus, medicine had “no playbook” for Wenger. Instead, the athletes were the playbook. He relied on daily conversations with them about their symptoms to keep the record down.

What Wenger came up with was a six-step plan to return to full-intensity training loosely based on her concussion protocol. Only, according to Wenger, was this plan even more conservative and protracted.

Each phase lasted at least seven to ten days. With each step, the intensity and duration of the training increased gradually. Wenger even provided precise heart rate thresholds for each phase so athletes knew where to end their exertions. In phase 6, the athlete would meet with Wenger for re-evaluation before returning to full participation.

“I figured that slowly and steadily, until science started catching up on what was going on, was probably the best way to go,” Wenger said.

Wenger brought in a colleague cardiologist to run tests on those athletes who had persistent symptoms. In some cases, this included electrocardiogram and echocardiogram tests and blood tests. All results were within normal limits for what he had expected from the rowers.

For those athletes whose recovery looked less like continuous, linear growth and more like a sine wave, Wenger didn’t stick to a structured protocol. Instead, they were encouraged to listen to their bodies and monitor their heart rate. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t overdo it.

“Trying to endure illness and injury has been glorified for many athletes,” Wenger said. “This was one of those times when it was like, hey, pay attention to the little details of your heart rate. About the effort. About sleep and relaxation and simply general well-being. “

If the Olympics had continued “I would not have made it”

Chase went through the protocol relatively quickly and hopped up the erg two weeks after her recovery period.Evening to leave the loneliness of the erg in her host family’s basement, Chase joined teammates like Kara Kohler, Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser for bike rides at. Three weeks to a month after recovering from COVID-19, Chase said she felt normal and was ready to get back into oar shape.

At Coffey, the process took much longer. For the first few weeks she could not go for a walk without feeling tired. When she felt good enough to do light cardio during the summer, she built an erg in her sister’s barn in New York state and worked out on her own.

“I was walking so slowly and I knew it, but it just felt like the toughest workout I’ve had in my life,” said Coffey.

Some days she would ride a single on a nearby lake and paddle for 10 minutes, which was more fun than the erg because she wasn’t forced to watch her relatively slow splits. When she returned to Princeton in October, she still didn’t feel like herself. But with the help of the medical commission, Coffey said she was “100%” satisfied with the return.

Rowers at the Princeton boathouse were allowed to train in groups of eight on ergs and in the weight room throughout the fall. Coffey kept a close eye on her heart rate after going hard and noticed that her trajectory was starting to look normal. In December, Coffey felt well enough to hit an important milestone – she set a personal record of 6,000 meters on the Erg.

“If (the Olympics) had gone as planned, I wouldn’t have made it,” said Coffey. “I just think that this year is just such a great opportunity to be faster and then also have the potential to make it into the Olympic team. That helped me. “

Rowers returned to large boat classes when the men’s and women’s teams traveled to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California in early January. They were allowed to train in groups as long as they agreed to treat the environment like a bubble.

Wenger’s biggest concern with athletes moving to bigger boats had nothing to do with the virus itself. The rowers had a problem that was a by-product of isolation and that spent a lot of time sitting on poorly ergonomic couches at home: their posture had deteriorated.

So how do you fix this?

“If you ask the athletes, they’ll roll their eyes because that’s one of the biggest things I’m interested in,” Wenger said, “that they’re sitting with their heads bowed and their shoulder blades stretching up to the sky and recruits a muscle called the trapezius. “

Despite the postural corrections, the rowers’ overall fitness levels in January and February were close to what they expected about seven months before the Olympics. In April and May, Imes estimates, the athletes were in the same spot as in previous Olympic years.

With the Olympics in sight, no one is keeping US rowing on their toes. Until the graduation ceremony is over, Wenger will establish healthy habits and Imes will create contingency plans for anything that could logistically change in Tokyo.

To make it to the end of the Olympics, the rowers, doctors, coaches and host families of the women’s national teams will have needed an effort the size of Olympus.

“I think it was a community that embodied Olympism,” Wenger said. “That we all worked towards this common, common goal. That no person was more important than the team. I think that’s a message that embodies that we stick together and strive for excellence, no matter what arena. “

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