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A team physician’s Olympic experience in a pandemic

My Olympic journey actually began in 2019 when I accepted the job of National Women’s Hockey team physician. We had a three-year plan full of training camps, exhibition games against the U.S., Finland and Junior Male teams, the World Championships and more training camps leading up to Beijing 2022. Then the pandemic arrived and the world changed.For our team there were many frustrations in the last two years, including not being able to train together as well as the cancellation of games and the World Championships. In hindsight, the training in isolation and the cancellations due to COVID-19 actually led to a new awareness that adversity could help create something new and amazing to propel the team to success.

My role in the last three years has been to take care of the usual medical issues and injuries as well as to create COVID-19 protocols. I had to try to keep everyone safe when we were able to come together in a bubble, as well as when we were at home and apart. This was challenging as the Public Health protocols differed widely across Canada and the U.S. depending on where the staff and players lived.

We got through the first two waves and then Omicron arrived two months before the Olympics. We were back in isolation, some recovering from COVID-19 and staying away from family over Xmas, and others isolating trying not to catch COVID-19. Our focus was on doing everything we could to not test positive in the six weeks prior to our arrival in China. As well, those who had previously tested positive needed to meet the Chinese criteria to even be able to travel.

We moved into a hotel two weeks before our departure date with a protocol to isolate for three days and then have a negative PCR test before training together. We became rapid test experts doing daily testing and started our daily online symptom check-ins for Beijing. China had very strict test result criteria in addition to our Canadian Olympic Committee protocols, which meant three negative tests within 96 hours of testing.

On Jan. 26 we boarded a flight to Vancouver with masks and shields, hand sanitizer in every pocket and then did another round of rapid tests in the Vancouver airport prior to boarding the plane for Beijing. On the charter flight we were seated divided by sports with spacing between. When we arrived in Beijing, we got our first look at the protocols in China including the “hazmat” suits and more testing. After several hours in the airport we were cleared and bused to the Beijing village.

We settled into our rooms at the village and experienced the fun of trying on the Olympic clothing. It was strange at first in the closed-loop system surrounded by fences and Chinese military but we were so happy to be there. We took it one day at a time with daily testing and wearing masks at all times except in our own bedrooms.

It seemed very normal to eat in our own plexiglass cubicle next to our teammates. Watching the other sports on Chinese TV, using a burner phone for emails and WhatsApp video calls with family at home became our new normal as well. Olympic staff completed over 69,000 PCR tests per day in the closed-loop system and every day I hoped that no one on our team or staff would test positive and have to go into isolation as per the Beijing Public Health orders. As the days went by, we felt safer and worried less about getting a new COVID infection and settled into the routine of going to the rink for practice and games.

There were some stressful days such as the day of the game against Russian Olympic Committee when the results didn’t come in time and we knew they had some positive tests and some players in isolation. We decided to wear masks to play to decrease the risk and our players did not hesitate.

I was so proud of them and the determination, dedication and professionalism they bring to their sport. As a team our motto was “our way” and we decided to do whatever it took to make it safely to the gold medal game.

When the puck dropped at the gold medal game, I felt a huge sense of relief that every player made it and was able to play. Winning the gold medal with this team after the last two years of challenges was so rewarding!

The celebration on the ice with our team and staff was amazing and we felt a tremendous amount of pride in representing Canada and gratitude for each other. It wasn’t until I was walking in the closing ceremony it hit me that I had just experienced the Olympics and will always have those memories of a special team and a special win for Canada.

Dr. Tina Atkinson is the national women’s team physician with Hockey Canada, team physician of the Halifax Mooseheads and chief medical officer of Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic. She is a sport and exercise physician in Dartmouth. 

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