U.S. bobsledder Josh Williamson spent last week soaking up the life of a newly-minted Olympian, training in Chula Vista, Calif., and reflecting on his journey from college lacrosse retiree to reality TV show winner to Team USA. "It's pretty surreal," he said in a phone interview. He looked forward to a "cool new adventure" at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Then, on Sunday, four days before he was scheduled to depart for Beijing, he tested positive for COVID-19.
Williamson announced the positive test in an Instagram post on Wednesday. He's the first U.S. athlete named to the 2022 Olympic team to reveal a positive in the two weeks leading into the Games, which begin Feb. 4.
Josh Williamson, still hoping to compete, will have to clear strict rules
With bobsled events scheduled for the final week of the Olympics, Williamson said he was still hoping to compete. He'll need multiple negative tests, a buffer of a few days, and a late-arriving flight to get to Beijing in time for training runs beginning Feb. 10.
The two-man bobsled competition begins Feb. 14, and the four-man competition is Feb. 19 and 20, the final two days of the Games. Williamson would likely compete in the two-man and definitely in the four-man, if cleared.
A Team USA charter flight is scheduled to depart from California on Thursday. Other special Olympic flights, though, will run throughout February, giving Williamson hope.
The 25-year-old Floridian, like all other Team USA Winter Olympians, is vaccinated, which likely increases his chances of testing out of quarantine within a couple weeks. Scientific studies have shown that vaccinated individuals are, on average, able to recover from COVID quicker than unvaccinated individuals.
Given the timeline of his positive test, Williamson will likely be able to clear his infection, by U.S. CDC standards, before the Games begin. His 10-day mark will arrive on Feb. 2, two days before the Opening Ceremony.
But Chinese rules, and therefore Olympics rules, are stricter. Williamson, according to updated protocols finalized late last week, will need to test negative four times — on his fifth, fourth, third and second day before departure — to be cleared. And each of the four tests must be a PCR test, which can remain positive for weeks after a person clears the contagious phase of their infection. The "persistently positive" tests merely detect remnants of the virus that can no longer spread.
That's why, in the U.S., PCR testing after the 10-day mark is not only unnecessary but "actively discouraged," Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist Bill Schaffner told Yahoo Sports. The Beijing Olympics rule, he said, was "going to disqualify some people for no good reason.”
If Williamson is unable to compete, alternate Nic Taylor — the husband of top women's bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor — would likely take Williamson's place in a four-man sled.
"This has not been an easy pill to swallow," Williamson wrote on Instagram. "I have felt pretty helpless throughout this process, but I’ve also found myself laughing a bit at the situation I’m in. Isn’t it ironic that after 4 years of hard work, all there is to do is sit, rest, recover and have faith?"
Josh Williamson's unique journey to the Winter Olympics
Williamson's backstory is unique. The Olympics, he told Yahoo Sports, were "a massive, massive childhood dream," but they weren't on his mind when he enrolled at Mercer College to play lacrosse. After injuries ruined his freshman season, he transferred to Florida State, and figured his competitive sports career was over.
"I just decided I wanted to go be a student," he said. He felt burnt out. He craved a "normal college experience."
About a semester into it, he realized that he "needed competition" in his life.
Bobsled, at the time, was a foreign concept until, as a physical fitness junkie, he followed a few Team USA sliders on Instagram. As sprinters and heavyweight lifters, they were the type of athlete he aspired to be. And then the lightbulb flickered. Williamson looked into the sport, and thought, "You know, maybe I can do this."
Then, while scrolling Instagram in 2017, he saw an ad for something called "The Next Olympic Hopeful."
"I guess the algorithm figured me out," he joked.
It was part reality show, part Team USA scouting combine. Williamson drove to a nearby 24 Hour Fitness, passed some tests, and qualified for the first edition of the show. Before long, he was on a plane to Colorado Springs, with an invitation to the 37-acre U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Training Center, where the camp was being held.
USOPC high-performance coaches had initially pegged him as a skeleton athlete, but as coaches watched him lift and sprint, they quickly realized he was a perfect fit for bobsled. When "Joshua, athlete 303” came up at a nightly evaluation meeting, U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer pointed and grinned. "That’s a guy that we’re gonna keep an eye on,” he said.
Darrin Steele, the USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO at the time, told the room: “He’s probably the best natural candidate that we’ve found as a recruit [in years]. … He’s one of the few that I would say has the potential — and it’s always a long-shot, but has the potential — to make the Olympic team in six months.”
A couple days later, Williamson won the reality show. Fellow competitors lifted him up onto their shoulders. Soon, he entered the U.S. bobsled pipeline. That six-month timeline to the 2018 Olympics proved too aggressive. But Williamson quickly rose through the national team ranks, and excelled on the World Cup circuit, was preparing to head to Beijing as one of Team USA's top male push athletes.
His four-man sled, driven by Hunter Church, is not a medal favorite, but its members believe they can spring a surprise at the Games.
Williamson couldn't wait to slide down the Olympic track in Beijing. Then came the positive test. And now, isolation and an excruciating wait.
"The support I received after making the team has been incredible and it has meant the world to me," Williamson wrote. "I hope I get the chance to compete for you all!"