Covering Gymnastics During a Pandemic

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

23 thoughts on “Covering Gymnastics During a Pandemic

    • I’m trying my best! And hope other people in the sport realize that if we want more meets to happen this spring/summer, we need to follow the rules. I definitely didn’t take the decision to travel to Indy lightly, and I’m still very concerned about how other people will behave, but I’m going to do my best to cover it all and am glad that the media was allowed to attend because I think press coverage will help keep people accountable.

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    • Thank you! I know I don’t usually get personal on here aside from just talking about the gymnasts I love the most hahaha, but I think this meet is going to be about so much more than gymnastics for so many people so I’m happy I can share that side of things in addition to the gymnastics.

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  1. Hope everything goes well and you stay healthy! Completely agree with you on all the health measures you take. Well done, well planned out.
    Also, how crazy is it that the flu season, the cold season… has been so much better this year?? It’s as if masks work, as if it would be great to not sneeze and cough at people in public transport… (That’s been my pet peeve (one could say hypochondriac tendency) for years. Main reason why I bike everywhere I go, even in winter :D)

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  2. Be safe and enjoy. And fyi, not sure if there’s a ModernMD near you here in the city, but they have the regular and rapid tests. I was upstate and came back w some potential symptoms (turned out to just be allergies) but they gave me both. You have to text a phone number to get a number in line, but they’re usually good for same day appts if you get a number by early afternoon.

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  3. Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful and insightful article Lauren, it’s definitely one of my favorites you’ve written! Your honesty, and willingness to let us into your life in a way, came through in a brilliant way. Thank you for your diligence, & I wish you safe travels & a good experience! ❤️ 🤸‍♀️

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    • Thank you so much! I started out just wanting to make sure people knew I was taking this trip and behaving responsibly as seriously as possible but I thought I never really talk about COVID in general aside from when it cancels meets, so I thought sharing my whole experience with the pandemic might be helpful for people to read if they’ve also been having a tough time and grappling with the decision to go out and do something…I have a lot of guilt when I leave my apartment, so to take a step as big as getting on a plane and traveling for a meet is really hard for me to justify to myself, but I think a lot of people feel the same way and it’s helpful to read other people’s experiences so we know we’re not alone and I hope this helps people realize that!

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  4. Oh wow, I actually have beta thalassemia minor. It sucks being tired all the time because of it, but I can’t even imagine what you have to go through being that you have the next stage of beta thalassemia. Glad you got your vaccine though – stay safe and have fun in Indy!

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    • My sister and mom both have more of the thalassemia minor or thalassemia trait and based on being less sick throughout childhood/high school, I think that’s how it was for me until I got to my late teens/early 20s and started getting really physically exhausted and constantly sick, and it took a while to realize that it was due to thalassemia and not just being generally rundown. I think you definitely get used to it, especially because when I’m at my VERY worst, I’m like, okay yeah my normal state isn’t SO bad hahaha. And when I’m really taking care of myself with lots of sleep and water, or like with COVID, not around other people and picking up every germ, I can be pretty healthy so there are definitely times where I haven’t been as severely affected…it’s hit or miss, really, but as terrible as COVID has been, I really am looking at the bright side in being able to have one full year without any illness at all. But yes, thrilled to have gotten the vaccine, and also love having masks protect me all the time now! And thank you!

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      • Congrats on the healthy year! I don’t want to minimize the realities of the anxiety covid has been giving us (esp us NYers who experienced being an epicenter, and are 5 minutes away from a full year of trying to deal) but I hope that being there and experiencing some familiarity and excitement ends up being a spirits lifter. Remember, ur not going to Miami to lounge, and party because you ‘need a break from covid’ and they’re ‘open’. This is work for you. Safety first, of course, but I hope you can come back feeling as if you safely enjoyed yourself.

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  5. I’ve been reading this blog for a while and had no idea of all your health struggles and what it’s been like for you during covid. Thank you for sharing; I now have more appreciation for what you do!

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    • Thank you! I don’t ever really feel that limited by my health and when I’ve felt really mentally burnt out by COVID, I’ve just kind of ignored the blog for a few days (or longer), and then come back to it when I felt like I had the energy to put into it again, assuming that with nothing major happening throughout most of the year, I wouldn’t really be missing out on much. For me even though there are some hard days I think it’s mostly pretty manageable overall and that I’m used to a certain level of discomfort! But I appreciate the kind words!

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  6. Superb post, @Lauren! Really interesting that the year of mostly isolation has meant you’ve felt better/been healthier. That goes to show, in the normal course of things, just how many little germs and illnesses we share around (UGH) without realizing it, because most of us can just fight them off without even noticing. But you, wow!

    BTW maybe on the news it’s usually men with masks under their noses, but in person I see idiots of all genders. I could go off for an hour about all the weird and stupid things people do with masks. LORDY. 😉 We had to take a car trip from the east coast to Texas for a funeral, and talk about stress, people without or mis-wearing masks, etc. The farther south and west we got, the worse it was. I was so happy to see a new feature on travel sites, indicating a hotel’s policy of how long the room was empty between guests, and chose hotels based on that.

    Anyway, thanks for such an interesting article, I hope things go smoothly and everyone else is as safe and careful as you!!!

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