I googled gymnastics mask and laughed so hard at this
When I got the opportunity to cover the Winter Cup live and in person this year, my initial reaction was hell no.
As we first learned more about what the coronavirus was and who it affected, I started getting nervous. I’m immunocompromised thanks to a genetic blood disorder called beta thalassemia intermedia, which is basically like a super anemia that can’t be fixed with iron supplements (no matter how hard my doctors tried to force the highest prescription dose iron pills on me). This weakens my immune system to the point where I’m usually sick with respiratory infections for more than half the year, and on several occasions, my body becomes weakened to the point that I’ve needed blood transfusions just to function (my first experience with this was when I was hospitalized back in 2013 after I had to “just sit down for a minute” in the shower because I couldn’t stand up anymore).
An incredibly contagious virus that attacks your respiratory system?! My idiot immune system was like, this sounds amazing, get in me. I’m lucky in that that my office was proactive with moving us to a virtual environment two weeks before COVID was declared a pandemic, and am even luckier that my work has gone interrupted since then, providing me with some sense of stability at a time that is otherwise so unpredictable and terrifying.
I’ve been incredibly obsessive about my precautionary measures from day one, ordering all of my groceries through delivery services and doing everything else virtually if at all possible, and there was a ten-week period between November and January where I didn’t leave my apartment once. I live alone, so that means my holidays were just me in my apartment doing absolutely nothing, which sucked, and I’ve really struggled with a number of mental health issues during this year of isolation, with my sleep particularly affected.
But as lonely and as difficult as it’s been at the best of times, and as soul-destroying as it was at the worst, the win for me – on top of knowing I was doing everything I could to not contribute to the spread – was not being sick once. In 2014, I got strep throat seven times in six months. In 2018, I got double pneumonia, recovered, and then got it again, worse, a week later. That’s on top of my usual bronchitis and sinus infections and tonsil issues and colds that I just have to get used to because what else am I supposed to do? But in the past year…nothing. Not even a sniffle, a few days of allergies aside, and my hemoglobin count is up to a point where it’s almost within normal range! If nothing else, COVID taught me that I will probably never go on the subway or into a crowded public place without a mask ever again because this has been incredible.
When I did psych myself up enough to go outside again in late January so I could knock out a series of doctor appointments I had been putting off until after the post-holiday cases started decreasing, I wore N95s and stayed far away from everyone else on the subway, because literally no one knows how to wear a mask correctly (or at all). But I mostly just continued to stay home, because if I don’t have to physically leave or be around other people, why would I?
But then I became eligible to get a vaccine thanks to my garbage blood, and I began to feel hopeful and excited about leaving the house again for more than just doctor visits, and I began to take potentially traveling to cover the Winter Cup more seriously. I decided if I was vaccinated in time, and if it looked like USA Gymnastics would have a protocol in place that made sense to me, it would be a good warm-up for covering the meets leading up to the Olympics this summer, and then of course, the Olympic Games.
I got my first Moderna vaccine the day I became eligible, and my nurse administering the shot told me just the single dose would be 92% effective starting after about 10 days. That lined up with the Winter Cup timeline, and USAG’s protocol also seemed to cover all the bases – limited media invited so we can be appropriately distanced, no contact between media and athletes with all interviews taking place virtually, testing prior to the competition, masks enforced (bonus points for not allowing neck gaiters and masks with valves!), no gathering in groups outside of the people you traveled with, and if you’re not actively working, training, or competing in the arena, you should be in your hotel room, getting your meals via takeout or, better yet, delivery.
Personally, I trust myself to follow guidelines like these. As a hypervigilant rule-follower, I feel more than prepared, and am confident that I will be able to keep myself and anyone I come into contact with safe, but it’s where others come in that I get a bit anxious and it’s why I was initially planning on staying home. But once I got the vaccine, I felt okay with it and considered the trip a necessary one for the work I need to do leading up to the Olympics.
I do enjoy covering competitions via video, and another bittersweet benefit of the pandemic was the UEG finally streaming all of the junior sessions at European Championships. But that said, you do miss so much when you’re not there in the arena, and since this is such a huge moment for the U.S. men and women – many of whom haven’t competed at a large-scale elite meet since 2019 – I wanted to be there to see it all unfold without missing anything. Not just for the gymnastics, but because the return to gymnastics at this level in the U.S. will undoubtedly be an emotional one. Just stepping back into an arena again and seeing people I’ve come to know over the past decade of covering this sport is going to be such a rush. I can only imagine that the experience for the athletes, especially those who were so close to Tokyo last year only to have their dreams cut short, will be this times a million, and I want to be there to see it and talk to them about it.
Still, the decision is a huge step for me mentally as the first “normal” thing I’ve done in forever, and with all of the safety measures in place, it’ll still obviously be anything but normal. I’m excited to go, but I’m also terrified, not so much for my own health at this point, but more about the general experience of being part of a large event after spending the last year isolating. I know other similar meets – like the Szombathely Challenge Cup and the Friendship & Solidarity Meet – have been mostly successful thanks to the measures taken to keep everyone safe, so I have faith that this one will also be safe if people follow the rules, but will they? Will coaches who haven’t seen each other in over a year ignore the “no eating at restaurants” rule and go out to celebrate? Will everyone answer their daily health screenings honestly, or will they click “no” on the “have you been around someone with COVID” question so they don’t have to miss the meet? Will men – because it’s always men – pull their masks up over their noses for once even though they as a species seem fully incapable of doing so?
I’m justifying going to the Winter Cup as an important step I need to take to start getting “back to normal” now that I’m vaccinated, because it’s more low-key than the bigger competitions will be this summer, and if I can’t do this, how am I going to go to Tokyo? But at the same time I recognize that it’s not literally essential that I go and that I’m making a conscious decision to travel and attend a sporting event at a time when kids in many states still can’t attend school. The responsibility is on me and everyone else attending to make sure we keep ourselves and everyone who crosses our path safe so we don’t contribute to the spread, and while I can’t speak for anyone else attending, I personally am holding myself to the highest standard, the same way I do when I ride the subway or visit a doctor here in New York.
In the ten days leading up to the day I’ll travel to Indianapolis, I’ve pretty much entirely stayed in my apartment. A week ago, I had to go to the doctor and get labs done, but today I took a COVID test, which came back negative, giving me the all-clear to travel. I won’t leave again at all until Thursday, when I will Uber to the airport and fly directly to Indianapolis, take a rapid test, and then check into my hotel and not leave my room again until the first MAG competition on Friday evening, where I will be wearing one of my 3M Aura masks (they’re super protective, ridiculously comfortable, and your glasses don’t fog!) while sitting as far as I possibly can from other humans, something I’ll repeat at the other sessions throughout the weekend. When my plane touches down in NYC on Monday, I’m going straight to CityMD to get tested again, and will then quarantine for two weeks while doing daily health checks for USAG’s contact tracing.
As antsy as I am about attending this competition, I’m also excited that I’ll be able to bring it all to you through behind-the-scenes photos and live blogs of every elite session. I’m not going to the Nastia Liukin Cup, because I don’t usually cover level 10 and missing it will help me limit the number of people I come into contact with, but I’ll be at all of the MAG and WAG sessions sharing everything I possibly can to help bring the experience of the return of gymnastics in the United States to life.
Article by Lauren Hopkins