Skiing

‘So close, yet so far’: This international Olympic COVID romance is a story for our times

ADN reporter Nat Herz covered the Winter Olympics for the ADN and FasterSkier.com. This is a final dispatch reported from Zhangjiakou, China.

American Olympic cross-country skier Kevin Bolger grew up in Wisconsin. His girlfriend, Olympian Maja Dahlqvist, is from Sweden.

During the Olympics, in China, they got to spend a couple of weeks in the same place. Among their options for dates:

• Go cross-country skiing together, but stay side-by-side, six feet apart.

• Eat meals at the Olympic Village dining hall, separated by head-high plastic dividers.

• Socially distant walks.

Welcome to the coronavirus Games, where parents and fans were banned, masks were mandatory indoors and out and even couples like Dahlqvist and Bolger had to stay at respiratory droplet-safe distances.

Okay: There was one moment of weakness — but only after Dahlqvist won silver in the individual cross-country sprint event, where she was heavily favored to take a medal. Afterward, there was a very satisfying hug.

“My team didn’t care. And his team didn’t care. It was just, like, to celebrate then,” Dahlqvist said in an interview later. “But I don’t think we should do that every day.”

Dahlqvist’s and Bolger’s Olympic romance is a neat encapsulation of China’s Covid Olympics: It was making a decent time out of a difficult situation, but nowhere close to the real thing.

Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. team’s head coach, described their relationship like this.

“You still get to go for a walk, you get to go for a ski with each other. You still get 90% of the companionship,” he said. Asked to reconsider that figure, he added: “Yeah. I would actually say, 30%.”

Nobody on the American or Swedish ski teams got Covid during the Olympics, so we can chuckle now about what Bolger, 28, and Dahlqvist, 27, endured.

But the protocols were no joke, and the stakes were about as high as they get for Olympic athletes.

China’s strict coronavirus protocols meant that an infection during the Olympics, or in the lead-up to the Games, could cost athletes a shot at medals.

Just before the Olympics began, several members of Norway’s team tested positive after an altitude camp in Italy.

The cases sidelined a star woman, Heidi Weng, even though she’d been quarantining from her own boyfriend and had other people shopping for her groceries in the weeks before the Games.

One of Norway’s star men, Simen Hegstad Krüger, spent the first days of the Olympics pacing his hotel room in Italy after his own positive test.

Krüger recovered in time to get to China and win a bronze medal in the Olympics’ last men’s cross-country event. But Weng missed the Games altogether — underscoring what was at stake for Bolger, Dahlqvist and the teammates whose medal chances could also be jeopardized by a positive test.

“I think we both understood the risks — personally, for each other, and then, bigger scale, for the team,” Bolger said.

He and Dahlqvist, who both specialize in sprint races, started seeing each other last season, while their teams followed the elite-level World Cup circuit around Europe.

Bolger got to spend two months with Dahlqvist in Sweden over the summer. And during the early part of this winter, they could spend time together without too much coronavirus stress.

“Everyone had the vaccine. Omicron wasn’t a thing,” said Bolger. “We were still being smart about things. But it wasn’t a big deal.”

But the situation changed as the Olympics approached and omicron took off.

The Swedish and U.S. teams had simultaneous pre-Games altitude camps in Italy; Bolger’s and Dahlqvist’s accommodations were within shouting distance. But there was no canoodling.

“She’s like, ‘Come on, give me a hug!’” Bolger said. “I was like, ‘No — don’t even get near me until, like, maybe after the (Olympic) sprint.’”

Even on walks, the couple wore KN95 masks and stayed at least two meters apart. They’ve taken similar precautions during the Games.

“God knows what was happening on those walks,” quipped Bolger’s teammate Luke Jager, before adding: “We really trusted them. We were never concerned about it. We knew they hadn’t been sneaking off and smooching in the woods.”

Bolger and Dahlqvist were by no means the only couples contending with Covid-related relationship complications in the lead-up to Beijing. And athletes and coaches said that the steps the coronavirus forced them to take were painful.

Erik Flora, who coaches several Olympic cross-country skiers at Alaska Pacific University’s elite team, said one of his athletes wore masks around and slept in a different room from their partner.

Jessie Diggins, the star U.S. skier who won two medals in Beijing, has described skipping weddings and celebrations and spending four months on the road last year without any time with her family or fiancé, Wade Poplawski. That kind of emotional support can be especially important at high pressure events like the Olympics, she noted.

“You really want your family and your loved ones around you, right?” Diggins said in an interview. “I don’t have a choice. I don’t get to see Wade. But (Bolger and Dahlqvist) are right there, and they made the choice to protect the team. And that is so cool, and I can’t say thanks enough.”

To state the obvious: Going through the Olympics while socially distancing from your partner is hard. “Super hard,” said Dahlqvist.

“It was, like, so close, yet so far away,” Dahlqvist said. “It was just so annoying.”

The hug she got from Bolger, after winning her first of three medals, was such a relief, after facing intense pressure beforehand.

“I just cried,” she said. “It was so nice to have him there.”

As the Games ended, Dahlqvist left Beijing before Bolger, who remained with the U.S. team through the closing ceremonies and then flew to Finland to continue the World Cup season. Dahlqvist is competing in Finland this weekend, as well.

Bolger said he thinks they can start relaxing their precautions now that the Olympics are over, if not entirely. But the couple will be able to truly let their guard down when the World Cup season ends next month.

Bolger plans to stay with Dahlqvist for a while in Sweden. And then she may travel with him, back to the U.S.

Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who covered the Winter Olympics for the ADN and FasterSkier.com. He also reported on-site from Games in 2014 in Russia, and 2010 in Vancouver.

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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