(CNN) — Oonagh Cousins trained up to 35 hours a week after being chosen for the British rowing team for the Tokyo Olympics, despite contracting covid-19 in February 2020.
The 26-year-old from Surrey suffered a mild case of the disease so she felt able to quickly return to training. But she believes that intense exercise may have exacerbated the virus, adding that it “ended up turning into a really bad long covid,” forcing her to leave the Olympic team.
“At worst, for a couple of months, I’d say I really had trouble getting out of bed,” Cousins said. “Getting out of bed to make breakfast was a huge mountain to climb.”
Even now, he said, “severe fatigue” only allows him to get a few hours of normal activity a day.
“I still have a hard time exercising,” Cousins said. “Now, I can probably do three 20 minute sessions in a week, very light.”
Now, he wants to warn other young athletes, especially those flying to Tokyo for the postponed Games, to take covid-19 seriously.
“People who are young and healthy, who exercise, think they are not going to catch it,” Cousins said. “It is important that whoever contracts the virus is very careful.”
His road to recovery is still ongoing, but his Olympic dreams for Tokyo are over.
“It was very difficult for me, I was very upset,” she commented about dropping out of the Games. “I gave myself the space to process it, I allowed myself to grieve, basically.”
Cousins hopes to get back in shape and ready to compete at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
‘I’m in mourning’
But for other athletes, Tokyo was their last chance to win an Olympic medal.
Priscilla Loomis, a US high jumper who competed in the Rio Olympics in 2016, hoped to represent Antigua and Barbuda in Tokyo due to her dual citizenship.
But a severe case of covid-19 altered his chances and he was unable to qualify.
“(I’m) absolutely devastated,” Loomis said. “I am heartbroken. (I am) healing right now. I am in mourning.”
He suffered chest pains and breathing difficulties and had to miss eight weeks of training. His doctor even advised him to abandon his Olympic bid, due to possible long-term damage to his heart and lungs. But she kept going.
“All I could think of was that I need to prepare for the Olympics, I need to prepare for the Olympics,” Loomis said. “And so that kind of turned my world completely upside down.”
And, at age 32, he said he cannot continue training at this level, or funding the necessary support, for another four years.
“This was my last (chance),” he said. “There’s no way I can pay the coaches and the doctors and as you get older all these random things hurt when I wake up.”
Long-term covid, also called post-covid syndrome, is emerging as a major long-term public health problem.
In the UK alone, nearly 700,000 people reported having symptoms for at least three months after becoming infected with COVID-19, according to a survey conducted by the UK Office for National Statistics in March.
Most of the 700,000 said their illness limited their daily activities, and for nearly 70,000 the symptoms have lasted more than a year.
A separate study published in April showed that seven out of 10 people who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 had not fully recovered five months after being discharged.
CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, says researchers don’t fully know why the virus affects some people more strongly than others.
“We were dealing with a disease that we didn’t even know how to define a year ago,” Dr. Gupta said.
“So if you are an athlete, you could have covid symptoms that last a long time,” he added. “And it will really impact your performance for a long time, too.”
Reboot from scratch
Some athletes who had the virus have made a full recovery and are heading to Tokyo for the Games.
Vinesh Phogat, a champion wrestler from India, contracted covid-19 in August 2020.
“I was very surprised how I caught it, because I never left the house,” Phogat said. “I was never in contact with anyone and I stayed home training.”
The 26-year-old recovered smoothly, but the loss of training time, combined with the one-year delay until the Games, pushed back her schedule.
“When I had covid during that month, it ended everything I had been training for,” he said. “I had to restart my training from scratch.”
Phogat also said she faced great personal anxiety after her entire family contracted COVID-19 a few months ago in India, during the big outbreak there. She was training in Ukraine at the time.
“Everyone tested positive for covid at that time and the situation in India was such that hospitals were full,” he said. “If I was in India, maybe I could have contacted people and looked after them. My biggest concern was that I was not with them.”
Phogat called them seven to ten times a day to check on their status.
“Because my family is from a village, they need reminders of what pills to take and what to do or not do,” she said.
“I was worried because there are many children in my family and my mother is prone to disease, so I was worried that the situation would get worse.”
Fortunately, they all made a full recovery, so the fighter is now fully focused on a successful Olympics and is going to the event as a favorite in her 53 kg weight class.
At the Rio Olympics, Phogat was removed on a stretcher after a serious knee injury, so this time she is looking for a medal and feels lucky to be able to compete given the pandemic.
“It is difficult, but actually it is also a pleasure that even in such a situation, we can play in the Olympics and all athletes can make our countries proud,” said Phogat. “We can show the world that we can all come together.”
“The covid has put everyone really tense and they have had to stay at home, then they will have the opportunity to see the Olympics and the heroes of the world.”