They’ve gone too far, far too long, to mess it up now.
Thus, the eight members of the Canadian men’s curling team spent the three weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics sequestered in a rental house in Vancouver. They only train when the nearby rink is empty and pass the time playing pool, sitting in a hot tub and thinking about their family back home.
“It’s like a brotherhood without the booze,” said Marc Kennedy, 2010 gold medalist and this year’s team alternate, who is dealing with the disappointment of missing one of the dance of his daughters. “Everyone here has pretty wonderful spouses.”
As thousands of Olympians around the world collectively navigate the final weeks of preparation for the 2022 Games in Beijing, they are incorporating a new exercise into their daily routine:
Get around Covid-19, by any means necessary.
With the Feb. 4 Opening Ceremony in sight, athletes are cutting contact with loved ones, changing the very way they train and, in many cases, ceasing all activities outside the areas of competition. The task has felt increasingly Herculean amid a global rise in coronavirus cases ignited by the highly contagious variant of Omicron.
The emotional toll of it all, of living in fear of getting sick, of completely disrupting their lives to avoid it, has been as grueling as their toughest workouts. But the alternative – contracting the coronavirus, being forced out of the Games and, in effect, erasing years of preparation and anticipation for this singular moment in their careers – is simply too devastating to contemplate.
“Everyone is testing positive right now, and that scares me,” said Emily Sweeney, 28, a luge from Portland, Maine. “I can’t stop thinking about all the shitty situations I’ve been through to get to this point, and it feels like such a big risk just to exist in this world right now.”
Avoiding Covid-19 was of course a goal for athletes since the start of the pandemic; getting sick is a contradiction in terms for people whose livelihood depends on their physical well-being.
But at this point, the concerns of Olympians – young, fit and vaccinated, as a whole – are less about the disease or any symptoms and more about the testing regimen. Athletes traveling to the Games must produce two negative results in the days before their flight to Beijing, and everyone on the ground will be checked each day.
Positive tests could prevent athletes from boarding their flights to Beijing or force them into an indefinite period of isolation once there, rendering all their hard work, suffering and sacrifice essentially void. of meaning. It’s no surprise, then, that some Olympians have been plagued with a sense of helplessness, a feeling that at any moment their dreams could be shattered before they even begin.
“We play Russian roulette every day,” said Brittany Bowe, an American speed skater. “You can take every precaution, wash your hands, wear a mask and somehow you can still get Covid. In my opinion, it’s luck of the draw at this point.
Anxious in the face of the unknown, athletes have taken their destiny into their own hands. They have reduced their lives to streams of social distancing training sessions and an endless blur of deep nasal swabs.
Snowboarder Maddie Mastro said she hadn’t seen her family or friends, other than her boyfriend, since November. Like other athletes interviewed for this article, Mastro said she had long since stopped dining out and wore a mask at all times whenever she was away from home.
Nathan Chen, the top male figure skater in the United States, was regularly spotted wearing masks during full-speed practice sessions on the ice ahead of these Games.
Australian figure skater Kailani Craine, nervous about taking off her mask for even a moment, has been reluctant to eat even on long flights this season for fear of making herself a little more vulnerable to infection, according to her trainer, Tiffany Chin.
Maame Biney, an American short track skater, had planned to go out and celebrate with family and close friends after securing her spot on the team – only to think about it at the last minute.
“I was like, ‘No, wait, if I get Covid, then I’m not going, and it’s not fair for me or my teammates to risk this,'” she said. “And so I said to them, ‘Hey guys, I just need to stay safe, and I can’t go out, so we can have a FaceTime celebration.
Her teammate, Kristen Santos, in addition to double masking at all times, put her fiancé “in isolation” this month, limiting his movements to minimize his risk of contracting a case.
“He went shopping at 10 p.m. the other day,” Santos said.
In Europe, members of the U.S. biathlon team have operated in “roommates” while bouncing from training camps to events: Their roommates are the only people they can eat with or generally be without a mask.
“It certainly shapes every aspect of our daily lives, because it would be a big disappointment to miss four years – a lifetime really – of hard work for one carefree moment,” said biathlete Susan Dunklee. heading into her third straight Olympics, who craved things as simple as going for coffee on the day off. “Sometimes you go crazy in your hotel room.”
Covid anxieties have even reshaped the way teams train.
For example, the four men who compete in the team pursuit event for the US speed skating team, the current world record holders, limit the time they actually train together – the event requires skaters to come into physical contact – to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
Similarly, Joel Johnson, the coach of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team, said he struggled to balance taking precautions and arranging enough practice time for his players. For now, producing negative tests took up more brain space than planning the Games.
“Covid worries us more than anything,” said Johnson, who held team meetings virtually. “We’re not worried about any opponent, whether it’s Canada, Finland, Russia, Switzerland or whoever. Right now we’re worrying about how do we get there and how do we get there prepared to play? »
The risks of athletes congregating in one place became clear this month at the US Figure Skating Championships, where eight people – three individual skaters, a pair team, an ice dance team and a coach – came together. withdrawn from the event after testing positive for Covid.
In other sports, athletes skip competitions that might normally serve as final dress rehearsals for the Olympics. An unusually large number of top athletes – a group that included American snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim and Chinese skier Eileen Gu – chose to skip the X Games this weekend in Aspen, Colorado.
“It was a calculation that a lot of people had to do,” said Gus Kenworthy, a British freestyle skier and two-time Olympic medalist who competes at the X Games. He was devastated for several days after contracting the coronavirus in October.
The effect of all of this – self-isolating before entering further isolation in Beijing – placed a heavy mental burden on the athletes.
Jessica Bartley, director of mental health services for Team USA, said she and her colleagues have heard from countless Olympians struggling with the uncertainty of the moment. Bartley and his team offered advice and concrete steps, big and small, to help reassure Olympians.
“I think it’s a little more in your control if you have those things to do,” she said.
Thus, the athletes gather their last elements of discipline and determination to navigate these last perilous days before the Olympics. There’s one last kick in the race for the Games, and no one wants to stumble now.
“Now is not the time to slack off on this stuff,” Mastro said. “Now is the time to pull yourself together. »
Jonathan Abrams, John Branch, Scott Caciola, Alain Blinder and Kevin Draper contributed report.
Top photographs by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images (Sweeney); Jurij Kodrun/Getty Images (Dunklee); Rick Bowmer/Associated Press (Bowe).