These Athletes Had the Coronavirus. Will They Ever Be the Same?


Back at home after his harrowing month in the hospital, O’Donnell has set his sights on competing in an Ironman race in Arizona this fall. He acknowledged it was a lofty goal.

  • Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


“They’re not sure if I’ll ever get full lung capacity back,” he said. “I may or may not.”

Had he not contracted the virus, O’Donnell, an executive at a chemical company, would be doing three runs, three swims and three bicycle workouts per week at this point in his training cycle. But the virus derailed his life plans.

After returning home, he needed a walker just to go out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. In his first attempt to exercise, two days after he left the hospital, he walked for seven minutes at a speed of 1.2 miles per hour using supplemental oxygen. He has been trying to add a minute of time, and a bit of speed, each day.

O’Donnell said he was struggling with “a fair amount of doubt” about his ability to get back in shape for the race. But he has motivated himself with the secondary goal of raising money for coronavirus relief, and he has been repeating the same mantra ever since he was struggling in his hospital bed: “Don’t stop. Don’t quit. Keep moving forward.”

This mentality has helped other athletes who have been hit with serious symptoms.

The 29 days Tsang Yee-ting spent in the hospital were the most she had been away from a karate mat since being introduced to the sport at age 6. A member of the Hong Kong national team, Tsang, 27, contracted the coronavirus in March while preparing to qualify for the Summer Olympics.

For the next month, she battled a range of symptoms, the worst a searing pain that engulfed the lower half of her body. Walking was a struggle. Lying down offered no relief. As she fought a virus that doctors were still learning about, “all sorts of thoughts” about her body and about her future spiraled through her mind, she said.

“Of course I was worried,” Tsang said. “Karate is my life.”

But even as the virus and isolation from her family levied an “emotional toll” on her, Tsang resolved to stay as active as possible to keep herself sane. She acquired elastic bands and, on days when her body felt strong enough, completed mini-workouts in the tight confines of her hospital room.



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