Canadian Olympians stuck in isolation are forced to get creative to stay in shape
It had been four or five years since Eric Radford had done burpees.
But Radford and pairs figure skating partner Vanessa James were forced to get creative in trying to stay fit when they were forced to isolate with COVID-19 barely a month before the Beijing Olympics.
Radford would play their free skate music -- Harry Styles' soulful "Falling" -- and do lung-busting burpees for the entire four-and-a-half minutes.
"That's definitely a good way to get your heart rate up," Radford said. "But it was very difficult. It's not the same type of motivation and it's not the same type of energy when I'm in my bedroom doing burpees, trying to get my heart rate up."
Or, James and Radford would play the music and do high knees during the transition parts of the program, and burpees at places where there's a lift or a throw.
"While thinking about your neighbours downstairs," James said, with a laugh. "The visualization, playing the music with the cardio, I think really did help."
The final few weeks ahead of an Olympics are crucial for fine tuning. Being cooped up inside, even with no symptoms, is the last place athletes want to be. But the recent crush of COVID-19, amid an Omicron variant that spreads like a grass fire, has forced numerous Canadian athletes into isolation, including 11 members of Canada's bobsled team, and Para hockey player Tyler McGregor, who is an amputee athlete and had only his girlfriend's parents' elliptical machine at his disposal.
Cody Sorensen and Cynthia Appiah were two of the bobsledders confined to hotel rooms in Sigulda, Latvia, for 10 days over the Christmas break. Not only did they miss races, with valuable points for Olympic qualifying, but lost precious training time in a sport that demands explosiveness and thus peak muscle strength.
Sorensen propped one of the two twin beds up against the wall for floor space. His daily routine included yoga in the mornings, via YouTube videos, then body weight exercises like pushups -- as many as 500 a day -- and air squats.
"We were doing jumps and stuff too, you could tell when it was workout time because the walls were pretty thin," said Sorensen, a two-time world bronze medallist. "It was very rudimentary exercises that we were doing for 10 days ... that speed component is the one thing that was hard to kind of replicate obviously in a 10 foot-by-10-foot dormitory."
Appiah took the first couple of days to rest after a gruelling nine weeks of training and racing.
"And then once I was starting to get restless, I did some yoga in my room, some 'booty challenges' on Pinterest and then pushups, crunches, whatever I could do in that confined space," she said.
Appiah won bronze in the World Cup monobob finale last weekend, to secure third in the overall season standings.
But back when she received news of her positive test, the 31-year-old from Toronto panicked. She fretted about losing fitness and missing races.
"But I'm always up for the challenge," she said. "Once I had my woe-is-me pity party, I just got back into that competitive mode, and was like: Okay, what do I need to do in the next 10 days to make sure that once I get back on ice, I'm prepared and it's as if I never missed a day?"
McGregor, a two-time Paralympic medallist, got sick around Dec. 23 while he and his girlfriend were staying with her parents.
"So I was in isolation there," he said. "They have a couple of little weights in the basement. And then I'm not much of an elliptical guy -- obviously, being an amputee, I struggle on the elliptical -- but that's the only form of cardio machine that they have."
"(The elliptical) targets different muscle groups that I'm used to using in my leg, it was pretty sore," said McGregor, who was a Triple A hockey player before losing his leg to cancer when he was 17.
While quarantine can mean lost fitness, its impact is dependent on the sport, according to sport physiologist Trent Stellingwerff. Whether or not the athlete contracted COVID-19 or was only a close contact is also a factor.
"Where it gets really challenging ΓÇª is sports specificity," said Stellingwerff. "So if you test positive, and you're a pro cyclist, and you have an indoor trainer set up, you can do a pretty good job training really well. But if you're a swimmer that's awful hard, or if you're a snowboarder, you can stay physically fit through Zoom sessions, and some dumbbells and some weights, some bike training, but your ability to have the feel for the snow, and the technique and technical elements, that's really challenging.
"And almost all the winter sports have a way more technical component than a lot of the summer sports," he said. "So that will add a degree of challenge to the situation."
At last summer's Olympics, Canada's Dayna Pidhoresky was forced to isolate in her hotel for two weeks at the track and field team's training camp in Gifu, after she'd been told she was a close contact with a passenger on her flight. The team got her a stationary bike to train on. Pidhoresky finished 73rd in the women's marathon days after her quarantine ended, the last woman across the line, after 15 women dropped out. She called it a victory to even have finished.
The potential for injury can increase after quarantine also. In 2011, after the NFL lockout, 10 players ruptured Achilles tendons in the first 12 days of training camp.
Stellingwerff, who works with national team athletes in numerous sports, said he was pleased with how Canada did in Tokyo, in terms of injuries.
"Knock on wood, hopefully, the same will happen for the Winter Olympics," he said. "There's always injuries in elite sport. If you want to stay injury-free, just go sit on the couch. The inherent nature of trying to beat the world requires some risk taking, but I was pleasantly surprised that the injury rate coming out of COVID for the summer athletes with lockdowns and various things.
"All the stars, everyone came through it OK."
Omicron wasn't even a thing a few weeks ago, and now, it threatens to thoroughly derail Olympic dreams. If an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 now, they must provide three negative PCR tests and then submit that documentation to the Beijing Olympic committee (BOCOG). It's up to BOCOG to clear the athlete to travel to China.
So, while being quarantined for COVID-19 was difficult for the athletes who've recently been there, they feel like the lucky ones.
"It simultaneously was a really annoying and bad thing to happen because it didn't allow us to prepare for (the recent national championships), but now compared to athletes that haven't gotten it yet, we can be a little bit more at ease," said Radford. He and James withdrew after the short program at nationals, saying they hadn't fully recovered enough to compete well.
"We'll be very vigilant still. But I can tell you, from talking to other athletes (who haven't had the virus), I know I'm more relaxed than they are at this point. We're both feeling a small sense of relief that we've got that over with, and now we have a little bit more of a clearer and less stressful path as we train for Beijing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.