Athletes try to stay COVID-free ahead of Winter Olympics

A single positive test could end these athletes’ Olympic dreams before they begin thanks to China’s strict “zero tolerance” policy against the virus.

BEIJING, China — Mariah Bell had just won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship to earn her first trip to the Olympics. Then came the hard part: staying coronavirus-free until it was time to leave for Beijing.

“That will be 100% the top priority,” Bell said after qualifying for the Winter Games and before retreating into lockdown in hopes of being able to dodge the virus for another month.

“I’m triple vaxxed; I did everything I could do there. I will wear my masks, wash my hands a lot. I won’t be surrounded by people,” Bell said. “We will try to create a bubble situation at the rink where I am.”

Athletes can spend decades trying to become the best in the world, and another year or two to qualify for what could be their only trip to the Olympics. And this year, they realize that it can start to crumble with just one sneeze.

With the adoption by the organizers of the Beijing Olympics of a “Zero COVID” policy and strict testing just to get on the flights, skiers, sliders and skaters are taking extreme measures to avoid the coronavirus and its omicron variant which has derailed the Olympic plans of several athletes. Others, including the bobsledder and future American flag bearer Elana Meyers Taylorcan only hope for the handful of negative tests that would allow them to fly to China to compete.

“I’ve been with the team for 2½ weeks, or whatever number we’re at now,” Canadian curling coach Jeff Stoughton said recently from the isolation home the team self-imposed in Abbotsford, in British Columbia. “We want to make sure they achieve their Olympic dream and get there and are able to compete at their best.”

For American mogul skier Hannah Soar, qualifying for her first Games meant an immediate return to the full lockdown of the early days of the pandemic: picking up groceries, no indoor contact and treating everyone she meets as s they had COVID-19. Even when wearing a KN95 mask outdoors, she still keeps her distance on the ski lifts.

She skipped the Tremblant World Cup in Quebec to avoid the trip.

“It’s definitely not how I imagined the month before the Olympics. I expected to just focus on winning the Olympics and not worry about going there,” she said. “It’s definitely a huge mental toll. It’s really anxiety-inducing, to be totally honest with you.

“You have to kind of juggle your sanity and be able to perform in the Olympics, and not lose your mind beforehand. But you also have to make it happen,” she said. “If your test is positive, you won’t be, and that’s a harsh reality right now.

Olympics organizers require everyone coming for the Games to test negative at least twice beforehand and then again upon arrival. Already, several athletes have tested positive, putting their Games at risk, with outbreaks among Danish men’s hockey players, the Swiss women’s hockey team and Norwegian female cross-country skiers.

To avoid joining them, other would-be Olympians have gone into varying degrees of confinement, sometimes only coming out of isolation to train.

The Canadian men’s curling team practiced in the garage of their hideout and only practiced when the rink was otherwise empty. When they weren’t training, they played a lot of pool, cards and the PlayStation Formula 1 game; they were also perfecting their TikTok challenges.

“Between that and the ice rink, we live pretty well. It’s just kind of like a big family,” second man Brett Gallant said, while acknowledging, “It’s a long time to have eight guys in the same house.”

The Canadian mixed doubles curling team faced the pressure of isolation as they exited Canmore, Alta. Double gold medalist John Morris said he snowshoes almost every day, while ice fishing.

“I think isolation can have an effect on your mental psyche. We try to make sure we go outside and in a good frame of mind,” said Morris, who competes in mixed doubles with Rachel Homan. “We had a small window to prepare, so we really focused on our game.”

Figure skater Madison Hubbell, who finished fourth in ice dancing in 2018 with Zachary Donohue, has canceled plans to see her family over the holidays. At the Montreal school where they trained for Beijing, they were tested daily and training times were staggered to allow for disinfection in between.

Before her mother could watch her skate at nationals, she had to test negative. When she got there, the hugs were over.

“You stand so close and want to hug them, but my parents totally understand,” Hubbell said.

The United States and Canada women’s hockey teams – the top two gold medal favorites – were scheduled to play nine tune-up games through early January, but the final three were canceled due to a epidemic among Canadian female gamers. The Americans also saw their games against Russia and Finland called off.

Instead, they trained as a team, meeting with mental performance coaches and trying to master the logistics of getting everyone to China safely.

“We’re certainly pivoting a lot and we’re adapting and adjusting,” said United States chief executive Katie Million. “Everyone – every league, every sports team, everyone – has had challenges over the past two years, and we are not alone in this.”

Canadian coach Troy Ryan said after two years COVID-19 protocols seem like a normal part of the process. And given the devastation caused by the epidemic, he is not going to complain.

“For us, we’re crying over situations that we have to overcome as a team, I don’t think that does justice to the whole pandemic, I mean, people are losing jobs, people are losing lives,” he said. he declares. “It’s special that we are still in a situation where we have the opportunity to go to the Olympics.”

AP sportswriters Pat Graham, David Skretta and John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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