'I just got used to being sick:' How long-haul COVID has cost WNBA star Asia Durr two seasons

Correction: A previous version of this story included a photo in which Asia Durr was misidentified. It also misstated Durr's status for the 2022 season. She is under contract with the New York Liberty.

That Friday in June 2020 was like so many other days. Asia Durr and her personal trainer were at the gym, working out and doing physical therapy for the hip injury that had limited the WNBA’s No. 2 pick in her rookie season.

Durr says now that she felt “weird” while she worked out. Tired and not her usual self. She didn’t think much of it at the time, chalking it up to the work she was putting in to be ready for the season. Later that day, however, Durr developed chills and felt nauseous. When she tried to sleep, she woke up in a pool of sweat.

Her symptoms got worse the next day, and still worse on Sunday. Now, in addition to the fever and the nausea, Durr felt confused. Concerned by the escalating symptoms, she went to the hospital.

“I still didn’t think I had COVID,” Durr told USA TODAY Sports. “I told the nurse as soon as I checked in what I was experiencing. She said, 'That sounds a bit COVID-y.' "

Durr had a COVID test and was sent home. A day later, she was told she had tested positive.

Asia Durr shown celebrating while with Louisville during the NCAA tournament in 2019.
Asia Durr shown celebrating while with Louisville during the NCAA tournament in 2019.

It was June 8, 2020. She would be sick for the next two months, and it would be nearly a year before Durr felt anything even close to normal.

Now, 18 months after contracting COVID, Durr has finally been cleared to resume workouts, and is hopeful of returning to the WNBA next year after missing the past two seasons.

LONG COVID: For millions, COVID-19 won’t quit. Doctors strive for answers on how to ease long-hauler misery.

“This was definitely life-changing. It was something I never saw coming, and it definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things,” Durr said. “Some days, I really didn’t think I was going to make it because of how sick I was. I always had a positive mindset, but I just got used to being sick for so long and doctors not being able to give me any type of response, answer, anything.

“Yeah,” she added, “it was bad.”

From the early days of the pandemic, those who have wanted to downplay or dismiss COVID have said it’s really only a threat to the elderly or those in poor health. Even if they contracted the virus, the spin went, the young and healthy would be fine.

But Durr’s experience, and that of a handful of other elite athletes, shows that is a dangerous misconception. The 5-foot-10 guard said she lost 32 pounds during her bout with long COVID, dropping to 110 pounds at one point. She continues to have memory loss and occasional episodes of “brain fog.”

“People say all the time, 'You’re young, you’re an athlete, you’re in great shape.’ Obviously, that doesn’t matter when it comes to COVID,” Durr said.

COVID was still so new when Durr contracted it that “long haulers,” those who suffer from symptoms for weeks, even months, weren’t recognized yet.

When Durr went back to the hospital in July 2020 because she was vomiting blood, she was told she also had bronchitis. When she continued to experience vomiting and diarrhea, doctors thought it could be connected to COVID. Or it might just be a vicious version of stomach flu.

When the symptoms persisted into the fall, Durr’s team, the New York Liberty, connected her with Mount Sinai Health System, which had created the country’s first facility to study and treat those with long COVID.

“I started talking with some doctors there around November (2020),” Durr said. “Doctors were telling me, 'You’re the worst case of COVID I’ve seen. You’re the longest long-hauler patient I’ve ever had.’ They’re seeing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of COVID patients.”

While researchers are still trying to identify what causes long COVID, one theory is that it is an autoimmune disorder. Durr said doctors have told her the virus attacked her nervous system – the vagus nerve, specifically – and that’s the reason for her continued flare-ups.

Durr was put on several medications to treat her symptoms – she still takes two – but the best remedy seemed to be time.

“I was definitely in a very dark place from November (2020) until April,” Durr said. “It was really challenging for me, after being sick for so long. I was always positive, but I was like, 'Am I ever going to turn the corner?’ I just got so used to being sick.”

Finally, in September, Durr began to feel like her old self. The flare-ups have decreased and she has learned to avoid what seem to be their triggers. Too much sugar. Too much physical stress. Even too much talking. When flare-ups do occur, they don’t last as long.

While some long haulers have seen symptoms improve with the COVID vaccine, Durr said she has not been vaccinated yet because she doesn’t want to risk a setback.

“My focus now is making sure my routine and training day-to-day is going well,” she said. “Managing my body and flare-ups.”

Durr reached a milestone last month, when she was given the OK to play basketball again after a series of tests showed there was no damage to heart. She made the announcement on Instagram, a smile lighting up her face while her fiancée and others cheered.

Durr still has to be cleared to rejoin team activities, and hopes that will happen before training camp opens in April. In the meantime, she is working out on her own, following a strength program put together by one of the coaches at Louisville, where she was a two-time All-American.

“I’ve made progress since I started training, but this really is a day-to-day thing. I’m cautious I’m not pushing too hard, too soon, and being smart,” Durr said.

“It’s really a process,” she added. “You have to trust the process, even when seems like it’s not processing.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Asia Durr looking forward to return to WNBA after bout with long COVID