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How elite athletes have struggled with the long-term effects of Covid

For some athletes, the road back to 100 percent isn’t a straight line.

Covid does not discriminate. Even elite athletes competing at the highest levels of their sports are susceptible to the virus’s long-term effects.

It’s been nearly a year since Covid changed everyday life as we know it. People have committed to slowing the virus’s spread by staying home, socially distancing, and wearing masks as vaccinations have slowly been rolled out. While progress has been made, there is still so much we don’t know about this virus.

Across multiple leagues, stories of athletes diagnosed with Covid have circulated, and everyone’s recovery has been different. Often, the road back to 100 percent isn’t a straight line.

From struggles with conditioning to discovering after-effects that threaten to derail promising young careers, Covid has wreaked havoc on athletes amateur, professional, and otherwise. These are the struggles certain athletes have had coming back from a positive test.

Mo Bamba and Jayson Tatum struggled with conditioning at 22 years old

Mohammed Bamba of the Orlando Magic and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics are two NBA players who have openly discussed the long road back from Covid. Despite each recovering and showing no symptoms, they have found it hard to get their wind under them as they work themselves back into top form.

Bamba, known for his elite shot-blocking ability, was drafted No. 6 overall in 2018 to the Orlando Magic. Despite the talent he brought to Orlando, he played limited minutes and had marginal production due to the Magic’s crowded front court. Bamba was diagnosed with the virus on June 11th, 2020, but tested negative before reporting to the bubble, where he played a total of 10 minutes. Nearly six months later, he still had not fully recovered.

Leading into the 2021 NBA All-Star break, Bamba has only played 16 games for the Magic and has spent most of his time out of the rotation. Like many, his initial symptoms were loss of his senses: lack of taste and smell. He also dealt with fatigue and muscle soreness, but his conditioning has held him back though he is cleared to play.

Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum has also had issues getting his wind under him after his return. Tatum tested positive for the virus on January 9th and returned to the floor after missing more than two weeks later that month. Tatum detailed his struggles to feel 100 percent, saying: “Just running up and down the court a few times, it’s easier to get out of breath or tired a lot faster. I’ve noticed that since I’ve had COVID. It’s just something I’m working on. It’s gotten better since the first game I played, but I still deal with it from time to time.”

Yoán Moncada and Kenley Jansen had a hard time reaching their pre-Covid production in baseball

Outside of affecting athletes’ conditioning, Covid can also impact overall performance throughout the season. That was the case for Yoán Moncada, the 25-year-old White Sox third baseman.

Moncada, one of the top prospects in baseball, finally had a breakout season in 2019 when he hit .315 with 25 home runs for Chicago. He tested positive for the virus before starting the shortened season the next year and saw his numbers steeply decline. Moncada ended 2020, hitting .225 with six home runs. His OPS fell from .915 to .705. He detailed his experience with the virus in September 2020:

“Definitely my body hasn’t felt the same after the virus. I feel a lack of energy, strength, it’s just a weird feeling. It’s different.”

“When I got to Chicago, before I tested positive, I was feeling strong and with energy. Now, it’s like a daily battle to try to find that strength, that energy to go through the day.

In the same vein, Kenley Jansen, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, tested positive in June. During recovery, he said,

“It definitely takes a toll on your body. It’s not a virus to play around with.”

Janson was right, it took a toll on him, and he has glimmers of the player we knew he could be, but it was few and far between during the 2020 season. Though he ended the season in a better place than he started, Covid did play a major part in his struggles throughout the year.

Tommy Sweeney and Ryquell Armstead ended their seasons due to Covid complications.

Tommy Sweeney of the Buffalo Bills was one of the first NFL players to develop a season-ending condition from Covid complications. He developed myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle. This is often developed after viral infections and goes undetected in many people.

Because the heart muscle never rests, stress to the heart or raised heart rates can be problematic. Fortunately, Sweeney’s condition was detected, as myocarditis is the cause of 5 to 22 percent of sudden cardiac death in athletes under 35 years old.

Coach Sean McDermott said:

“He’s had a rough year, with the injury, Covid and residual piece of the Covid, unfortunately. We know he’s a good football player and a guy that we believe in and can’t wait to get him back on the field when he can in the offseason.”

Ryquell Armstead of the Jacksonville Jaguars was hospitalized twice due to complications. Set to be Leonard Fournette’s replacement, he decided to return the following season to leave ample time for recovery.

College athletes have had varying side effects from the virus

At the college level, athletes from various sports have battled the virus and recovered, but just like the pros, recovery is not always linear.

Travez Moore, an outside linebacker at LSU, lost a significant amount of weight necessary for his position while infected with Covid.

Xavier Thompson, a defensive end for Clemson, decided to redshirt due to the virus’s negative effects on his mental health. Thompson had battled both strep throat and the virus, and head coach Dabo Swinney said not being able to work out due to the virus “put him in a bad place mentally as well.”

Asia Durr’s professional career is in jeopardy due to Covid

Unlike many of these athletes, Asia Durr has seen more than a dip in performance, a few missed games, or one forgone season. She is a Covid long-hauler, someone who survived the virus but didn’t completely recover, and she has no timeline for her return.

Many of the symptoms associated with long-haulers are developing brain fog, vertigo, debilitating fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Due to these symptoms, Durr and other long-haulers have no timetable for returning, and there is a chance it won’t go away.

Durr was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft and was drafted by the New York Liberty. At 23 years old and with the potential for a full career ahead of her, Durr described her symptoms. She said,

“There’s days where I feel great, like I could go out and go to the store or I could clean up. And then there’s days where I’m like, ‘I just have to stay in the bed,’ and you just feel like you got hit by a bus.”

She went on to say,

“I haven’t been able to (pick up a ball and play). It’s really challenging for me. But I’ve talked to doctors and they’ve told me I’m not cleared yet. I’m not cleared to be able do anything physically, which could cause flare-ups. That’s what’s really hard for me. Because in life whenever something was hard, I would go play. I can’t even do that now. I can’t even shoot a free throw.”

While we have heard many stories of athletes recovering and carrying on with their seasons and careers, it is evident that is not the case for every athlete. Even in peak physical condition and in their early to mid-20s, athletes are dealing with the virus’s harsh effects and extended complications. It’s important to shed light on the reality of what is going on and the risks associated with Covid, even for the most physically elite.