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Here's how US Olympic rowing team got through a COVID-19 outbreak

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PRINCETON, N.J. – Feeling motivated to do a workout typically isn’t an issue for three-time world champion rower Olivia Coffey. But on a Tuesday in late March last year, the stroke seat of the U.S. women’s eight looked for every excuse to get out of a run.

Mentally, she felt crummy. Who wouldn’t? The Tokyo Olympics had been postponed indefinitely because of COVID-19 concerns, adding more time to the quadrennial when selection camp was just weeks away. Coffey figured her state of mind was a reaction to the disappointing news.

As she slogged through a jog with teammate Elizabeth Sonshine on the towpath bordering the Delaware and Raritan Canal in Princeton, New Jersey, Coffey struggled to shake what she was feeling.

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“I'd kept trying to figure out reasons to get her to stop,” Coffey told USA TODAY Sports. “I was like: ‘Oh, there was a goose up the path. Let's walk.’ Or like, ‘Do you see this stick? Let me move this stick.’ And what I didn't realize was that I was actually quite sick.”

Coffey eventually learned that she was part of a COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S. women’s national team at their Princeton boathouse. Twelve athletes, roughly a third of the team, reported symptoms of the virus just three weeks after the first known case was reported in the state. The team’s sights quickly shifted from preparing for the Olympics – where the American women's eight seeks its fourth consecutive Olympic gold in Tokyo – to ensuring the health and safety of its athletes.

At the root of the outbreak was team physical therapist Marc Nowak, who outlined symptoms of the virus to the team medical commission at 12:40 p.m. March 23. Team doctor Peter Wenger obtained a rare test, administered it to Nowak at 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, and by the next day, US Rowing identified its first positive.

“Everybody in the training center was notified, and at that point, we really didn't have a good sense of any of the symptoms of COVID other than, say, a viral upper respiratory tract infection,” Wenger said. “So the message out to the team is literally, any symptoms, anything that's going on out of your normal, please let me know and we'll talk about what's going on.”

Lying in bed for eight days

Nearly the entire team had been exposed to Nowak. Coffey reported symptoms, and so did Kendall Chase, who will compete in the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s coxless four. At first, Chase thought her sore throat, achiness and grogginess were signs of a cold. The next morning she couldn’t get out of bed, and she had a throbbing headache.

“I never had a fever, but I just lay in my bed for – I don't think I did anything for eight days,” Chase said. “Which in my whole entire rowing career and even just like my athletic career in general, in high school, I hadn't taken eight days off from anything, ever.”

Wenger and the medical commission instructed the suspected coronavirus-positive athletes to rest and recover for as long as they felt was necessary before resuming activity. For Olympic hopefuls used to pushing through minor illnesses, ordering them to stop working out is like telling a toddler in a candy shop not to touch anything.

COVID-19, however, is no minor illness. At one point, Chase tried to go for a walk. She made it 30 seconds out the door before the sunlight hit her eyes and caused her head to pound. Coffey was so tired that she couldn’t cut a carrot or walk up a hill for two weeks.

But there was no rush to return. A week after Nowak tested positive, the International Olympic Committee pushed the Tokyo Olympics back a year.

“We don't need to force you to do anything,” US Rowing high performance director Matt Imes said. “A year's a lot of time. What we want you to do is be in an environment that you feel safe at and that you feel that if you need to continue to train at this point, where you can do that safely and that you feel comfortable with.”

Most national team members traveled to their hometowns during the shutdown, but some stayed in Princeton with their host families. US Rowing lent out ergometers, indoor rowing machines, to athletes who wanted them. Rowers could also take free weights home.

When it came to developing a return to play plan for those recovered from the virus, “medicine didn't have a playbook” for Wenger. Instead, the athletes were the playbook. He relied on daily conversations with them about their symptoms to script the protocol.

What Wenger came up with was a six-step plan to return to full-intensity training that was loosely based on their concussion protocol. Except this plan, according to Wenger, was even more conservative and drawn-out.

The length of each phase lasted seven to 10 days at a minimum. With each step, the intensity and duration of workouts gradually increased. Wenger even specified exact heart rate thresholds for each phase so the athletes knew where to cap their efforts. At Phase 6, the athlete would meet with Wenger for a reevaluation before returning to full participation.

“I figured slow and steady until science started catching up to what was going on was probably the best way forward,” Wenger said.

Wenger brought in a cardiologist colleague to run tests on the athletes who had prolonged symptoms. In some cases, that included electrocardiogram and echocardiogram tests and blood work. All the results came back within normal limits for what he expected for the rowers.

For the athletes whose recovery looked less like continuous, linear growth and more like a sine wave, Wenger didn’t hold them to a structured protocol. Instead, they were encouraged to listen to their bodies and monitor their heart rates. If something didn’t feel right, don’t overdo it.

“To try to push through illness and injury has kind of been glorified for a lot of athletes,” Wenger said. “This was one of those times where it was like, hey, pay attention to the small details about the heart rates. About the effort. About sleep and recovery and just the general well-being.”

If the Olympics had gone on, 'I wouldn't have made it'

Chase progressed through the protocol relatively quickly, hopping on the erg two weeks after her recovery period. Eager to ditch the solitude of using the erg in her host family’s basement, Chase joined teammates including Kara Kohler, Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser for bike rides. Three weeks to a month after recovering from COVID-19, Chase said she felt normal and was ready to get back into rowing shape.

For Coffey, the process took much longer. In the first few weeks, she couldn’t go for a walk without feeling fatigued. When she felt well enough to do some light cardio by summertime, she set up an erg in her sister’s barn in upstate New York and worked out alone.

“I was going so slowly and I knew it, but it just felt like the hardest workout of my life,” Coffey said.

Some days, she would take a single out on a nearby lake and paddle for 10 minutes, which she enjoyed more than the erg because she wasn’t forced to look at her relatively slow splits. When she went back to Princeton in October, she still didn’t feel like herself. But with the support of the medical commission, Coffey said, she was “100%” comfortable with returning.

Rowers at the Princeton boathouse were allowed to work out on ergs and in the weight room in pods of eight people throughout the fall. Coffey kept a close eye on her heart rate after hard pieces and noticed that its trajectory started to look normal. By December, Coffey felt well enough to achieve a major milestone – she set a 6,000-meter personal record on the erg.

“If (the Olympics) had gone on as planned, I wouldn’t have made it,” Coffey said. “I just think that this year's just such a great opportunity to be faster and then also still have the potential to make the Olympic team. That's what kept me going.”

Rowers returned to large boat classes when the men’s and women’s teams traveled to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, in early January. They were allowed to train in groups as long as they agreed to treat the environment like a bubble.

Wenger’s biggest concern during the athletes’ transition into bigger boats had nothing to do with the virus itself. The rowers faced an issue that was a byproduct of isolation and spending lots of time sitting on bad ergonomic couches at home: their postures had worsened.

So, how do you fix that?

“If you ask the athletes, they'll roll their eyes at me because that's one of the biggest things that I'm a stickler for,” Wenger said, “is that they sit with their head leaned forward, shoulder blade reaching up toward the sky, over-recruiting a muscle called the trapezius.”

Despite the posture corrections, the rowers’ overall fitness levels in January and February were close to where they were supposed to be roughly seven months out of the Olympics. By April and May, Imes estimates, the athletes were in the same spot as they had been in previous Olympic years.

With the Olympics in sight, no one from US Rowing is letting their guard down. Until the closing ceremony is over, Wenger will enforce healthy habits, and Imes will plot contingency plans for everything that could logistically change in Tokyo.

To make it to the end of the Olympics will have taken an effort the size of Mount Olympus from the women’s national team rowers, doctors, coaches and host families.

“I think it was a community that exemplified Olympism,” Wenger said. “That we were all pushing toward that shared, common goal. That not one person was more important than the team. I think that that's a message that what it embodies is us pushing together, striving for excellence, no matter what the arena.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Olympic rowing team pushed through COVID-19 outbreak in pandemic