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Take Coronavirus More Seriously, Say Olympic Rowers Who Got It

The women on the United States national rowing team think that young, healthy people need to take the coronavirus more seriously. They learned that the hard way.

More than one-third of the team was infected with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in March and April, during the initial swell of the virus in New Jersey, according to Dr. Peter Wenger, the team’s doctor at its training center in Princeton, N.J.

At least 12 women had the virus, he said, based on various test results of athletes and observations he had made of rowers who were not tested but showed symptoms of infection. During that first wave of infections, testing wasn’t yet widely available.

In late March, several days after New Jersey instituted a stay-at-home order as the coronavirus began to ravage parts of state, Marc Nowak, the team’s physical therapist, tested positive for the virus after experiencing minor cold-like symptoms. In the previous two weeks, Nowak said, he had come into direct contact with “pretty much the whole team” of 33 women during 30-minute physical therapy sessions of hands-on stretching and muscle and joint manipulation.

One by one, starting four or five days after exposure, rowers began to show symptoms of infection.

“In that first wave of things happening, everything was really sketchy and there weren’t really directives about wearing masks,” said Nowak, who has worked with the national team for 18 years. “We just didn’t have the information we needed to take the right precautions.”

Nowak said his wife, who is an operating room nurse, and two adult children living with them also contracted the virus, though his daughter did not become ill and later tested positive for antibodies.

“Now the message is, learn from us and what we’ve gone through,” Nowak said.

Emily Regan, an Olympic gold medalist from Williamsville, N.Y. who was among those infected, wrote a post on Facebook this month highlighting how debilitating the disease could be, even for some of the world’s best athletes who have incredibly powerful and efficient lungs. Most women at the training center are vying to make the eight-oared boat for the Tokyo Games next summer, when the United States will try to win its fourth straight gold medal in that marquee event.

“The narrative that has been going around in some places is that you won’t get the virus if you’re young and strong, or if you get it, it won’t be bad, but we’re perfect examples of how that is totally not true,” Regan said. She added: “Look what the virus still did to us. It knocked us down pretty hard.”

ImageRegan said it took her a month to feel back to normal and more than three months later, she’s still trying to get back into competitive shape.
Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

The rowers infected ranged in age from 23 to 37, Regan said, and many battled symptoms for weeks. The cases were categorized as mild, though some athletes dealt with complications for as many as 40 days, according to Wenger. None of the rowers required hospitalization, he said.

Regan, 32, said it took her a month to feel back to normal after she fell ill. More than three months later, she is still trying to get back into competitive shape, she said. That level of fitness was extremely high: Regan is a four-time world champion in her ninth year on the national team.

Updated 2020-07-23T10:30:23.915Z

“I’ve never struggled like that before,” she said.

Early in the year, before the spread of the virus was well known in the United States, Regan and her teammates weren’t worried about getting infected. They were preoccupied with making the team for the Tokyo Olympics and were anxious that the pandemic would affect the Games. Many could not bear the idea of the Olympics being postponed or canceled and enduring another year of grueling training because of it. But their priorities changed in a matter of a few chaotic days.

By mid-March, the pandemic disrupted the team’s training routine as sports leagues widely canceled competitions and other operations. The rowers had to move their team boats out of Princeton University’s boathouse, at the university’s request, and onto trailers in the adjacent parking lot.

New Jersey’s stay-at-home order on March 21 then sparked a rush for the rowers to each grab a rowing machine, called an ergometer, and some weights from their indoor training facility to bring home so they could train while gyms were closed. Three days later, the Games were postponed until 2021 and their collective mood was as low as they thought it could be — until U.S. Rowing delivered some alarming news.

Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

The federation emailed each of them to say that Nowak, their therapist, was likely positive for Covid-19, and that the rowers might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The athletes were told to quarantine for 14 days and pay close attention to how they were feeling and alert the host families many of them were living with.

Mass testing stations were not widely available, and Wenger, the team doctor, was left to figure out which rowers might have been infected by using contact tracing and by closely monitoring them for symptoms.

Five athletes reported varied symptoms the day Nowak tested positive, including fatigue, headaches, coughing and congestion, Wenger said.

Two athletes said they had lost their sense of smell, so Wenger subsequently asked other athletes to do what he called “the bacon test” — to fry bacon and sniff it. If they didn’t smell anything, it could mean they were infected.

Kendall Chase, a rower from Evergreen, Colo., smelled nothing when she took a whiff of a jar of strongly scented eucalyptus essential oils. Chase, 25, had written off a sore throat as a cold because she didn’t have a fever or a cough. But then she came down with a searing headache that lasted for six days. She described feeling congested, “like my brain was being destroyed by my sinuses.”

Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

For more than a week, Chase was sidelined in her host family’s house, barely able to even leave her bedroom. She said she couldn’t remember the last time she went eight days without working out. The team usually trains for four to seven hours a day, including two or three separate sessions.

“One day I tried to go for a walk and I made it maybe 30 seconds out the door before turning around,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it. The sun hurt my eyes so much that I couldn’t take it.”

Some host families asked rowers to move out of their homes, even if they had no symptoms. Chase’s hosts were nice enough to let her stay as long as she wore a mask and gloves and promised not to breathe on anyone or “lick any doorknobs,” she said with a laugh.

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As Chase recovered, Regan was living in her condominium in Princeton, N.J., and thought she had avoided getting the virus. The day the Olympics were postponed, she felt uncharacteristically short of breath while rowing on the ergometer on her porch, but she blamed it on the cold weather and her disappointment about the Games.

It wasn’t until a full 12 days after the team had been exposed that unmistakable symptoms hit her. First it was exhaustion and a slight fever. Two days later, breathing became painful and her entire body hurt. Her fever rose to 101.7 degrees.

For two days, Regan was in agony, unable to move and struggling to breathe. She tried to go for a light jog once she felt a little better a few days later, but didn’t last 20 minutes, even when walking, because her heart rate was so high and she felt like she was walking through water. She felt a sense of panic: she was used to training up to two hours straight and now she couldn’t even walk 20 feet without feeling like she would collapse.

As she ramped up her workouts, Regan continued to feel faint and shaky and described her performance on the ergometer as “the pace of an average high school girl.” After a month of feeling like she was dragging around a 50-pound weight wherever she went, she felt like herself again.

Regan spent some time with her family outside Buffalo before returning to Princeton this month to join about a dozen other rowers on the team. Many other rowers, though, have remained with their families in their hometowns. Matt Imes, the director of high performance at U.S. Rowing, said the athletes have been encouraged to return to training with the team whenever they feel comfortable. They are rowing out of a boathouse on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., the team’s second home in the Princeton area. No one on the team has shown serious lingering effects from the virus, Wenger said.

To return, the rowers must quarantine for two weeks or quarantine for three days and then test negative for the virus for two consecutive days before joining training sessions. They must wear masks as soon as they step out of their cars for practice, but they don’t have to wear them while rowing. They also fill out a questionnaire each day about how they are feeling, so the doctors and training staff can keep tabs on their health.

At practices on Mercer Lake, they train exclusively in single sculls because those one-person boats allow for easy social distancing. During indoor workouts on ergometers, the machines are spaced 12 feet apart, unusually far and more than the six feet of social distance recommended by health officials.

Physical therapy sessions are now limited to rowers working through injuries, Nowak said, with no general sessions geared toward maintaining peak performance. And, of course, Nowak and the rowers wear masks.

While so much has changed, the rowers know they must remain vigilant about their well-being to avoid another raft of infections cutting through the team. Wenger often reminds them that their Olympic success is at stake.

“I told them that the people that stay uninfected and get four-to-five training blocks in before Tokyo are the ones who will walk away with the medals,” Wenger said. “So that’s one big reason for them to take precautions extremely seriously, and they do.”

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