The 26-year-old from Surrey experienced a mild case of the disease, so she felt able to get back to training quickly. But she believes the strenuous exercise may have exacerbated the virus, adding that “it ended up being a really bad long Covid”, forcing her to quit the Olympic team.
“At worst, for a few months, I would say I really had a hard time getting out of bed,” Cousins said. “Getting out of bed to make breakfast was a huge mountain to climb. “
She said that even now, “severe fatigue” only allows her to perform a few hours of normal activity a day.
“I’m still struggling to exercise,” Cousins said. “Now I can probably do three 20-minute sessions in a week, very lightly.”
Now she wants to warn other young athletes – especially those heading to Tokyo for the delayed Games – to take Covid-19 seriously.
“People who are young and healthy, who exercise, they don’t think they’re going to get it,” Cousins said. “It is important that anyone who catches the virus is really very careful.”
His path to recovery is still on, but his Olympic dreams for Tokyo are over.
“I found it really difficult, I was really upset,” she said of dropping out of the Games. “I gave myself the space to process it, I allowed myself to grieve basically.”
Cousins hopes to get back in shape to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“I am in mourning”
But for the other athletes, Tokyo was their last chance to win an Olympic medal.
Priscilla Loomis, a high jumper from the United States who competed in the Rio Olympics in 2016, was hoping to represent Antigua and Barbuda in Tokyo because of her dual nationality.
But a bad case of Covid-19 derailed her chances and she failed to qualify.
“(I am) absolutely devastated,” Loomis said. “My heart is broken. (I) am healing right now. I am in mourning.”
She suffered from chest pain and difficulty breathing and had to miss eight weeks of training. Her doctor even advised her to drop her Olympic bid, due to the potential long-term damage to her heart and lungs. But she continued.
“All I could think of is I have to prepare for the Olympics, I have to prepare for the Olympics,” Loomis said. “And so it kind of turned my world upside down.”
And at 32, she said she couldn’t continue to train at that level – or fund the necessary support – for another four years.
“It was my last (chance),” she said. “I have no way of paying the coaches and the doctors and as you get older all of these random things hurt me when I wake up now.”
Long-term Covid, also known as post-Covid syndrome, is shaping up to be a major long-term public health problem.
In the UK alone, nearly 700,000 people have reported having symptoms for at least three months after being infected with Covid-19, according to a survey by the UK Office for National Statistics in March.
A majority of the 700,000 people said their illness limited their daily activities and for nearly 70,000 people, symptoms lasted for more than a year.
A separate study published in April showed that seven in ten people who had been hospitalized for Covid-19 did not fully recover five months after discharge.
CNN chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta said researchers are not sure why the virus hits some people harder than others.
“We are dealing with a disease that we didn’t even know how to define a year ago,” said Dr Gupta.
“So if you are an athlete you might have symptoms of Covid that last a long time,” he added. “And also a real impact on your performance for a long time.”
To start over
Some athletes who have had the virus have made a full recovery and are heading to Tokyo for the Games.
Vinesh Phogat, a champion wrestler from India, contracted Covid-19 in August 2020.
“I was really shocked at the way I grabbed him because I never left the house,” Phogat said. “I was never in contact with anyone and I would stay home and train.”
The 26-year-old has recovered without a hitch, but the loss of training time – combined with the one-year delay to the Games – has delayed her schedule.
“When I had Covid during that month it ended everything I had trained for,” she said. “I had to start my training all over again.”
Phogat also said she was facing enormous personal anxiety after her whole family had Covid-19 a few months ago in India, during the huge outbreak there. She was training in Ukraine at the time.
“Everyone then tested positive for Covid and the situation in India was such that the hospitals were full,” she said. “If I was in India, maybe I could have contacted people and taken care of them. My biggest worry was that I was not with them.”
Phogat called them seven to ten times a day to check on their condition.
“Because my family is from a village, they need to remember what pills to take and what to do and what not to do,” she said.
“I was worried because my family has a lot of children and my mother is prone to illnesses, so I was worried that the situation was getting worse.”
Thankfully, they have all made a full recovery, so the wrestler is now fully focused on a successful Olympics – and is stepping into the event as a favorite in her 53kg weight class.
At the Rio Olympics, Phogat was lying on a stretcher after a serious knee injury, so this time she is aiming for a medal and she feels lucky to be able to compete given the global pandemic.
“It’s difficult, but it’s also a pleasure that even in such a situation we can still play in the Olympics and all the athletes can make our countries proud,” said Phogat. “We can show the world that we can all come together.
“Covid made everyone really tense and they had to stay home so they will have the chance to see the Olympics and the heroes of the world.”
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