Skiing

Avoiding omicron is an Olympic-level challenge for Alaska skiers with Beijing Games, and virus tests, looming

The organizers of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing have imposed a rigorous regime of testing, quarantines and isolation for incoming athletes and staff.

Among the casualties is Steve Patterson’s pickleball game.

Patterson has two adult children, Scott and Caitlin, who grew up in Alaska and are both Olympic hopefuls in cross-country skiing.

They’re planning to prepare for the games from their parents’ home in Montana. Which means the whole family is being careful to avoid any contacts that could invite the coronavirus into their home — potentially derailing access to China for Scott, 29, and Caitlin, 31.

“They’re making some sacrifices,” said Scott, who trains with Anchorage’s Alaska Pacific University elite team.

The Patterson siblings are two members of what’s currently one of America’s most COVID-conscious demographics: aspiring Olympians with plans for Beijing.

China, with its “zero COVID” policy, has draconian requirements for anyone flying into the country for the Games. They start with two negative lab tests just to get on the plane to China, followed by another immediately upon arrival at Beijing’s main airport.

[Q&A: Anchorage figure skater Keegan Messing heads to the Olympics at the top of his game]

A positive test would disrupt teams’ meticulously laid plans for travel and training, and even asymptomatic cases would almost certainly force athletes to miss flights and competitions for which they’ve trained for years.

As a result, Alaska athletes and others involved with the Olympics are going to great lengths to stay free of omicron as the variant spikes across the U.S. and the globe — even with training and competition schedules that include inevitable cross-country or intercontinental travel.

“This experience that I’ve dreamed of my entire life is sort of now just grounded in stress, more than anything,” said Luke Jager, a 22-year-old Anchorage cross-country skier likely to be named to the Olympic team. “I’m sure at some point, being over there, it’ll kind of set in. But right now, the challenge of not getting COVID feels just as big as the challenge of even qualifying for the Games did.”

Chris Grover, the Anchorage-raised program director for the U.S. cross-country ski team, recently returned home to Idaho from the European racing circuit.

He spent his first few days with his in-laws, rather than with his family, to avoid catching the coronavirus from one of his children who’d had a potential exposure.

Meanwhile, one of the athletes that Erik Flora coaches at APU, he said, has even been wearing masks around and sleeping in a different room from their romantic partner.

“That’s the commitment that probably tops just about everything,” Flora said. “You’re messing with the human spirit at that point.”

More than a half-dozen cross-country ski racers with Alaska ties have a good chance to make the American Olympic team when it’s named Thursday — joining two curlers, a hockey player and a figure skater as some of those destined for Beijing from the 49th state.

In interviews, the skiers and coaches describe taking Olympic-level anti-omicron precautions. But each faces a unique set of risks, depending on their circumstances.

Hailey Swirbul also trains with APU in Anchorage; she planned to return from European racing to Alaska for a pre-Olympic camp, where she could spend time with her boyfriend and dog.

But after catching a cold, Swirbul, 23, decided to stay in Europe and avoid two rounds of major international travel.

After three train rides — sporting an N95 mask, with no breaks for eating or drinking onboard — Swirbul arrived in Austria for pre-Olympic training. There, she and her teammates broke into smaller groups that don’t mix indoors.

The athletes take rapid antigen coronavirus tests every day, retrieve meals cooked by a team chef, bring them back to their living quarters and eat only after washing their hands. Swirbul got in the habit of climbing out a window to leave her apartment, rather than walking through a shared space that would require her to don an N95.

She also turned down an invitation to meet a friend, outdoors, for hot chocolate. And “definitely no grocery stores — we haven’t been in those since we’ve been here,” Swirbul said in a Zoom interview.

Jager has suffered through much more of a saga. Outside of international competitions, Jager races for the University of Utah, and he had to return from top-level European racing a few weeks ago to compete in collegiate events in the U.S.

When he arrived, the coronavirus was circulating among his team, so he couldn’t move back into his house. In a phone interview last week, he described staying in the vacant home of friends of his girlfriend’s parents before a race series in Idaho.

“They get back tomorrow night. So, we’re trying to find some other place to stay because we’re trying not to see anybody,” he said. “I’ve been nomading, pretty hard.”

Jager returns to Europe this week for a training camp in Italy with the American team, then will fly to Beijing from Switzerland.

JC Schoonmaker, another likely Olympic team member who competes for University of Alaska Anchorage, is on a similar program to Jager, except he traveled and lived with his collegiate team during races in the western U.S. this month.

Schoonmaker’s coach, Trond Flagstad, said the UAA coaches are doing all the shopping; they enter the athletes’ houses to drop off groceries only while wearing masks.

“It’s definitely risky, but I’m pretty confident,” Schoonmaker said. “And I really do trust my teammates — I think they’re doing a good job.”

Aside from presenting obvious logistical problems, the coronavirus has affected the skiers in subtler ways, too.

It’s forced them to keep their support networks at a social distance, whether that’s partners, family members or friends. And with coaches taking on more risks, like grocery shopping, it’s also harder for them to work closely with their athletes, or even to drive them to races in vans.

Added all up, it makes for an especially grueling, and isolating, build-up to what was one of the most pressure-filled experiences in athletics even before the pandemic.

“It really weighs on me,” said Rosie Brennan, a medal hopeful who trains with APU in Anchorage. “It’s honestly harder than preparing yourself to race.”

With the Games, and the negative tests required to enter China, approaching, each swab presents aspiring Olympians with a new reason to worry — especially with the awareness that omicron may present itself without symptoms.

“You know how it is when you’re a skier: You’ve got stuff coming out of your throat and you’re always blowing your nose and stuff,” said Jager. “You’re like at 7,000 feet, you’re like, ‘Maybe I’m a little tired today and I just blew my nose a couple extra times. Definitely could be low-level symptoms of COVID.’”

One silver lining for the Alaska ski racers, in the final days before the games begin: They’re not alone.

One of Norway’s top cross-country skiers, Heidi Weng, made tabloid headlines in that country when she said she wouldn’t be seeing her boyfriend before Beijing.

And Maja Dahlqvist, a Swedish cross-country superstar, has to stay at least 6 feet away from her boyfriend, American cross-country skier Kevin Bolger. That applies even as their teams hold separate pre-Olympic training camps on the same trails in Italy.

“I mean, of course we wish we could hold hands or hug,” Bolger said in an email. “But both knowing what is on the line, we will survive until after Beijing.”

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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