Avoiding the omicron is an Olympic-level challenge for Alaskan skiers with the Beijing Games and virus testing looming
Organizers of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing have imposed a rigorous regime of testing, quarantines and isolation for incoming athletes and staff.
Among the casualties is Steve Patterson’s pickleball match.
Patterson has two adult children, Scott and Caitlin, who grew up in Alaska and are both Olympic hopefuls in cross-country skiing.
They plan to prepare for the games from their parents’ home in Montana. Which means the whole family is making sure to avoid any contact that could invite the coronavirus into their home – which could derail access to China for Scott, 29, and Caitlin, 31.
“They make sacrifices,” said Scott, who trains with the elite team at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
The Patterson siblings are two members of what is currently one of America’s most COVID-aware demographics: aspiring Olympians with plans for Beijing.
China, with its “zero COVID” policy, has draconian requirements for anyone traveling to the country for the Games. They start with two negative lab tests just to get on the plane to China, followed by another immediately upon arrival at Beijing’s main airport.
[Q&A: Anchorage figure skater Keegan Messing heads to the Olympics at the top of his game]
A positive test would disrupt teams’ meticulously laid out travel and training plans, and even asymptomatic cases would almost certainly cause athletes to miss flights and competitions they’ve been training for for years.
As a result, Alaskan athletes and others involved in the Olympics are going to great lengths to stay safe from omicron as the variant increases in the United States and around the world, even with training and competition programs that include inevitable cross-country or intercontinental travel.
“This experience that I’ve dreamed of all my life is kind of stress-based now, more than anything,” said Luke Jager, a 22-year-old Anchorage cross-country skier up for the team. Olympic. “I’m sure at some point being there it will kind of settle down. But right now the challenge of not catching COVID seems just as big as the challenge of even qualifying for the Games.”
Anchorage-raised USA Cross-Country Team program director Chris Grover recently returned home to Idaho from the European race circuit.
He spent his early days with his in-laws, rather than his family, to avoid catching the coronavirus from one of his children who had been potentially exposed.
Meanwhile, one of the athletes Erik Flora coaches at APU, he said, even wore masks and slept in a different room from his love partner.
“It’s the commitment that probably trumps just about anything,” Flora said. “You are playing with the human mind at this time.”
More than half a dozen cross-country ski racers with Alaskan ties have a good chance of making the U.S. Olympic team when it’s named on Thursday – joining two curlers, a hockey player and a figure skater among those destined for Beijing from the 49th state.
In interviews, skiers and coaches described taking Olympic-level anti-omicron precautions. But everyone faces a unique set of risks, depending on their circumstances.
Hailey Swirbul also trains with APU in Anchorage; she planned to return from European races in Alaska for a pre-Olympic camp, where she could spend time with her boyfriend and dog.
But after catching a cold, Swirbul, 23, decided to stay in Europe and avoid two rounds of major international travel.
After three train journeys – sporting an N95 mask, with no breaks to eat or drink on board – Swirbul arrived in Austria for pre-Olympic training. There, she and her teammates split up into small groups that don’t mix indoors.
Athletes take rapid coronavirus antigen tests daily, collect meals cooked by a team leader, take them back to their living quarters and only eat after washing their hands. Swirbul has taken to climbing out a window to leave his flat, rather than walking through a shared space that would require him to don an N95.
She also declined an invitation to meet a friend, outside, for hot chocolate. And “definitely no grocery stores — we haven’t been there since we’ve been here,” Swirbul said in a Zoom interview.
Jager suffered much more than a saga. Outside of international competitions, Jager races for the University of Utah, and he had to return from top-level European races a few weeks ago to compete in collegiate events in the United States.
When he arrived, the coronavirus was circulating in his team, so he could not return to his house. In a phone interview last week, he described staying at the vacant house of friends of his girlfriend’s parents ahead of a series of races in Idaho.
“They come back tomorrow night. So we try to find another place to stay because we try not to see anyone,” he said. “I’ve been nomadic, pretty hard.”
Jager returns to Europe this week for a training camp in Italy with the USA team, then will fly to Beijing from Switzerland.
JC Schoonmaker, another likely Olympic team member competing for the University of Alaska in Anchorage, follows a similar schedule to Jager, except he traveled and lived with his college team at races out west. from the United States this month.
Schoonmaker coach Trond Flagstad said UAA coaches do all the shopping; they enter athletes’ homes to drop off groceries only while wearing masks.
“It’s definitely risky, but I’m pretty confident,” Schoonmaker said. “And I really trust my team-mates – I think they’re doing a good job.”
As well as presenting obvious logistical issues, the coronavirus has also affected skiers in more subtle ways.
This forces them to keep their support networks socially distanced, whether that be partners, family members or friends. And because coaches take on more risks, like grocery shopping, it’s also harder for them to work closely with their athletes, or even drive them to races in vans.
Altogether, it creates a particularly grueling and isolating buildup of what was one of the most stressful experiences in athletics even before the pandemic.
“It really weighs on me,” said Rosie Brennan, a medal hopeful who trains with APU in Anchorage. “It’s honestly harder than getting ready to race.”
With the Games approaching and the negative tests required to enter China, each swab presents aspiring Olympians with a new reason to worry – especially with the realization that omicron can present without symptoms.
“You know what it’s like when you’re a skier: you have stuff coming out of your throat and you’re always blowing your nose and everything,” Jager said. “You’re like at 7,000 feet, you’re like, ‘Maybe I’m a little tired today and just blew my nose a few more times. It could definitely be low level symptoms of COVID. “
A glimmer of hope for Alaskan ski racers in the final days before the games start: they are not alone.
One of Norway’s top cross-country skiers, Heidi Weng, made headlines in that country when she said she wouldn’t be seeing her boyfriend until Beijing.
And Maja Dahlqvist, a Swedish cross-country skiing superstar, must stay at least 6 feet away from her boyfriend, American cross-country skier Kevin Bolger. This applies even if their teams organize separate pre-Olympic training camps on the same tracks in Italy.
“I mean, of course, we would love to be able to hold hands or hug each other,” Bolger said in an email. “But both knowing what is at stake, we will survive until after Beijing.”