The United States women’s rowing team had just returned to their training centre in Princeton, New Jersey after spending the winter months training in warmer waters in California. News articles were just starting to crop up about the virus and the rowing world was grappling with whether or not events would be allowed to go forward.
“I remember being really disappointed that the World Cups in Italy had been cancelled, because we didn’t know how bad things were going to get in the US at the time,” says Emily Regan, a member of the US national team since 2010 and an Olympic and World Champion. The team continued to train and started taking some precautions. Team members were rowing in small groups, had different schedules and practiced social distancing.
But a couple days later the team was informed that one of their physical therapists had tested positive for the virus.
“I was seeing the physical therapist at the time and it was before wearing masks was encouraged, and so nobody was wearing masks,” says US rowing team member and World Champion, Olivia Coffey.
The team was instructed to quarantine and monitor their symptoms. The next few weeks proved to be crucial. Several of the team members started reporting symptoms, but as is the case with many stories about COVID-19, the onset, extent and type of symptoms varied dramatically from athlete to athlete.
Coffey first noticed that things were not going well when she went out for a jog with her roommate. As an Olympic athlete, she was used to being in top shape and jogging easily alongside friends.
“I was trying to make excuses for why we should stop jogging because I was having such a hard time,” Coffey says. “When you’re at a training centre, the last thing you want to do is tell someone you have to stop. That had never happened to me before.”
As soon as New Jersey instituted a ‘stay at home’ order, all formal/group training stopped.
“Once our state mandated everyone to stay at home, we followed that rule as well,” says Regan. “Some athletes live with local families, so those athletes had to quarantine inside their homes and self-isolate for two weeks. We have teammates whose families would leave food outside their doors for them. Or I personally chose not to leave to go grocery shopping to be safe before I knew I had the virus.”
In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee had announced the postponement of the Games and the athletes were struggling to separate their feelings of disappointment with possible symptoms of COVID-19. It took Coffey another day to figure out that something was really wrong. At that point she started to have a low-grade fever, one of the symptoms of COVID-19. The team announced they would no longer be training together and Coffey, together with her husband, packed into their car and drove without stopping to a house they recently bought in upstate New York.
“It is close to my parents’ house,” Coffey says. “They (my parents) would drive over, drop a bag of groceries at the end of the driveway and drive away,” she says. For four weeks Coffey and her husband lived like this: quarantining in their house, with food drop offs.
“I was really upset about the Olympics but, more than that, I was afraid I was going to get my parents sick and that was the overriding fear in the back of my mind,” Coffey says.
Other team members described other experiences with the virus. For Regan, the initial symptoms were really mild. It took more than ten days from the onset of what Regan now realises were her initial symptoms before the reality of the virus really set in.
“At that point a lot of my teammates who were also sick were starting to bounce back,” Regan says. “But for me that was when the high fever and body aches started.”
“I could barely get out of a chair. It’s not something I’d like to experience again, nor wish on anyone else,” she says.
It took months before Regan started to feel normal again. “The first workout I tried to do was a 30-minute jog,” says Regan. “But I had to stop because my body hurt so much.”
The end finally came and Regan describes it like a light switch. “I went from feeling crappy one day, to feeling kind of normal again.” Ever since, she has been building her fitness level back up and now feels like she is getting back to where she was before the virus.
For Coffey and Regan, it was important to speak out about their experiences, especially in the United States.
“There was this narrative in the US that, ‘it’s just younger people now, the death toll will be lower, we’ll be fine, it doesn’t matter.’ But there is not much at all about what a mild case in a young healthy person can look like and so that was a big motivation about why I shared my experience,” says Regan. “As someone who had it, listening to some of the narrative in the US can be very frustrating.”
The US rowing team, along with teams and athletes around the world, are now grappling with the reality of a cancelled season, a postponed Olympic Games and all the ramifications that come with it. But one of the most dramatic changes has been a shift in the mentality around health.
“People are starting to understand that there is a hierarchy around priorities and your health and your happiness are first. That’s going to become the norm for people as opposed to now where performance can sometimes seem to take precedence over health,” says Coffey.