The journey of COVID-19 recovery

COVID-19 changed the lives of most around the world, even within the biathlon family. Lisa Vittozzi and Paulina Fialkova were among those athletes who fell sick ahead of the BMW IBU World Cup season and are now sharing their stories, experiences, and the troubled, long journey of acceptance and recovery from illness. Both tried their hardest, failed countless times, but got up every time, finding some good results by the end of the season, proving to themselves and the world that their battle was worth fighting.

The Illness: first symptoms with the season approaching

I started to feel sick, but like never before. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest,” recalls Fialkova about the first symptoms she had. Then things seemed to improve quickly and she was back training quite soon since the season was about to start and she did not want to miss any of it.

“I wanted to start again as soon as possible. And this was the worst mistake that we have done. I have started after only one week!! And it had been working particularly well for a few weeks. But now I see how careless I was. I didn’t want to lose many competitions but, in the end, I compromised almost the whole season.”

Similarly, Vittozzi also fell sick just ahead of the season and remembers very well the disappointment: “I was furious, it was about a month before Kontiolahti and I knew I would have missed the most important part of the training. Soon I realized, though, that things were to be worse than expected: for 10 days I could hardly leave my sofa. When I got back on skis it was devastating, I could barely do low-intensity training.”

The Illness: a medical overview

To confront such diverse, but ultimately equally impactful consequences of COVID-19 infections, we contacted Katja Mjosund, Specialist in Sports and Exercise Medicine and part of IBU Medical Advisory Group. Doctor Mjosund specified that, given how “new” this virus is, most studies are still ongoing, and we do not know so much yet. However, she shared what medical evidence showed so far.

“The response to the virus varies between individuals. Generally, there are symptoms of the virus infection itself and then symptoms caused by the body’s reaction to the virus. In COVID-19, some individuals have a very strong inflammatory response to the virus. The body seems to overreact with an ‘inflammatory storm’, which in turn gives many of the problems and symptoms associated with the disease.”

In addition, biathletes may also be at a higher risk given the nature of their training.

“Endurance athletes may also have a higher susceptibility to catching infections during hard periods of training and competition, since training stress together with some nutritional aspects associated with training may temporarily decrease immunity. However, we don’t yet know if that could affect the severity of the symptoms.”

The Recovery: a long and bumpy road

Three to four weeks after I started competing again, I saw that my body was getting worse and worse. It took more than 3 months until I fully overcame Covid,” admitted Fialkova: “In the competition, I had mostly breathing problems; I didn’t get enough oxygen into my body which is important for my muscles, my brain, and finger on the range. I also had problems with cardiac arrhythmia. My body worked quite well until 90%. But during competition, when one needs to use that highest 10%, it was impossible for me. My respiration, 3 months after detecting the infection, was still 20% lower than normal.”

Such long-term consequences can be connected to the return to training too soon. Dr. Mjosund did not comment on the individual cases, however, shared general advice and guidance based on studies: “training with the virus in the system may increase the risk of serious complications such as myocarditis. Pushing too hard too early may just prolong the symptoms – the athletes and their coaches should listen to the individual reactions of the body. If the return to exercise feels difficult and the athlete keeps struggling, even after a mild disease, consulting a physician is the wisest thing to do to exclude some medical issues such as myocarditis. Often the physician might want to do some screening such as an ECG.”

Further info regarding the suggested path to returning to training can be seen here: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/54/19/1174/F1.large.jpg

The Recovery: a mental battle too

After the first few competitions I felt so down,” confesses Vittozzi: “I lowered my expectations, but I did not believe I would have fallen so low. It was a tough hit after all the hard work in the preparation. It was an exceedingly difficult time because physically I felt emptied of energy and mentally it was hard to accept that I was far from where I knew I could be in the rankings.”

The Italian’s voice was echoed by Fialkova: “It was very very demotivating. To give everything and get nothing back… Naturally, I started to contemplate the chance that it was about bad training and bad shape. I was very confused and even started questioning myself.”

The Learnings: never give up

For both, Fialkova and Vittozzi, eventually, things started to go in the right direction as the season was turning to its end. It might have seemed ‘too little too late’ for some, but it meant the world to them after all they had been through.

“Every time I failed, I felt horrible but I didn’t give up,” reflects Fialkova on the turn of things: “It took me some time, but I ultimately accepted that I had to forget my shape before COVID. I took it at small steps like it was a new beginning and all at once, I started to feel better. I managed to find my lost skiing shape and I’m proud of it. Of course, I didn’t have enough time to fix my shooting, but - don’t want everything offhand, Paja!”

Vittozzi, who came close to a medal at the IBU World Championships of Pokljuka and finally returned to the BMW IBU World Cup podium in Nove Mesto na Morave, had a similar take on her season finale: “I am proud of myself for having never stopped believing I could get back from this. I tried to take it day by day, looking at the small things rather than the bigger picture. It would have been easier to give up when things did not go well, but I did not. I learned a lot from this bad experience: we are not machines; we must learn to listen to our bodies and even accept to stay put if we are not ready.”

Fialkova took a similar lesson from her journey and even tried to share her story with others so that they would not make the same mistakes: “Many athletes contacted me and wanted some advice on what to do. I wish I had someone who stopped me when I wanted to be back immediately, someone who believes in me, yet who stops me if I’m going to do something rushed or I’m over motivated or I overestimate my abilities.”

The learnings both athletes got from their experience is somehow proved by medical evidence as explained by Dr. Mjosund: “It is impossible to estimate how long the process takes, but the current state of knowledge says that it may usually take weeks-months, depending on the severity. Also, too heavy training too early may prolong the recovery, but this is again very individual.”

Both Vittozzi and Fialkova showed that fighting back is hard, but possible and this should be a message of hope that goes across the limits of the sport, into everyday life.

Photo: IBU/C. Manzoni & V. Thibaut

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