CRAFTSBURY, Vermont 18 - It’s a beautiful day here in Craftsbury, Vermont. The sun is shining, the snow is hard-packed; essentially it’s a great day for skiing. I was out this morning, skiing in Vermont, doing something normal, doing what I love. Yet, in a larger frame, life suddenly doesn’t seem so normal. COVID-19 is spreading quickly, fear is in the air, cancellations are happening left and right, and strong precautions against the outbreak are being taken around the world. A week ago I thought I’d be in Norway at this time, racing biathlon. Now I’m writing an article about the abrupt end of our biathlon season while quarantined alone in “Cabin B” (I’m on day 6 of 14) at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where I live and train. Certainly you’ve experienced changes, too. Perhaps you’re reading this from home when you’d normally be at work, or perhaps you work in health care, and are rightfully anxious about your safety. I pray that all this will pass, but there is no doubt that life is a little different right now.
In Kontiolahti, Finland, my roommate for the World Cup was Sean Doherty. We went to bed the night of Wednesday, March 11 after a good, hard, afternoon pre-race workout, and with snowflakes falling outside our window we were soon dreaming of a successful race for the following day. Just before four in the morning we were awakened by a vigorous BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM on the door. Sean scampered out of bed while I hesitated, half-curious if our early morning visitor was a drunk hotel guest or an extra-early antidoping representative - either way I was eager to get back to my sleep. Instead I heard a Finnish voice: the unmistakable voice of our team physio, Jani Pekurinen.
“Trump,” Jani said deliberately, his eyes stretched tall. “He, he is closing the border.”
Sean stared blankly back as if to say... huh?
I thought Jani was sleepwalking. Then I saw our wax tech, Tias, knocking on the door across the hall to wake our teammates, and I realized this wasn’t a cruel joke.
“You are on a flight at 5:30; you have to pack now.” Jani was picking up his pace now, clearly there was urgency. I started to wake up. “C’mon, c’mon,” he ushered me, “get moving you guys! You have to go!”
I checked my phone. five messages from my mom about Trump’s declaration. And what about my dad? He was in Finland hoping to watch the races, fast asleep in a hotel somewhere in Joensuu. Jani jumped on the problem; we figured out what hotel he was in and Jani called and used his Finnish magic to convince the concierge to wake my dad. My dad would make it out of Joensuu on the 8:45am flight. At that time, we didn’t realize that the European travel ban would leave an exception for American citizens.
Our other wax techs, always efficient in their work as they are, jumped out of bed and into our rooms to help us pack. Within 20 minutes we had loaded our gear into three taxis and were on our way to the Joensuu airport. We said an all-too-short goodbye to our techs, considering all the work they do and all the time we spend together, and headed for the gate.
In just over 24 hours we had made it home. Our travel day simply consisted of a little more hand sanitizing than usual and a heightened recognition of the unbelievable people mass that we come into contact with while traveling. How many people’s boarding passes did that TSA dude’s gloves touch? How many hands touched this bin in the security line? Does the guy who just breathed on me have Corona?
The trip home also gave me some time to wake up and react to what was happening. At first, I was upset. I shouldn’t be in a plane over Nova Scotia. I should be racing. I was ready to race, and forfeiting the opportunity initially produced a sense of anger and guilt. Anger because I felt an opportunity was taken from me; guilt because I had fled from the challenge of racing (by my own volition or not, it didn’t matter). But I didn’t really know what to think. Sure, I knew this Corona thing was serious, I knew there was a threat of us getting stuck in Europe, getting stuck on the road during a time of uncertainty. But I just wanted to race. I wanted to complete the task that I had prepared for.
I was walking past the food-court in the Chicago airport when my perspective began to change. College basketball on the TV caught my eye, as it usually does- I’m a fan. “March Madness Cancelled.” Straight up. Not “No spectators”, not “Limited team personnel,” just “Cancelled.” Whoa. I started reading up on the spread of this thing, how the spread of COVID-19 was accelerating exponentially in the United States, and how limiting our movement and our exposure to large groups would become increasingly important. I realized that we were pretty lucky, actually, to be traveling when we were. Every day we waited would put us at an increasingly greater risk of brining COVID-19 back to our communities.
Like many of you, my plans have changed because of COVID-19 and my life looks a little different than I had anticipated. Our season finished on a strange, unanticipated note. Athletes who are retiring didn’t get the capstone experience they deserved. Our coaches, who planned to finish the season with us in Oslo, weren’t able to join us after all (we soon learned that the Oslo World Cup would be cancelled, regardless). And now we are left in a bizarre haze of uncertainty.
However, we are healthy. We made it home before European travel went haywire. We have plenty of life to enjoy and experience amid the current uncertainty. So what am I doing now? First, I want to be smart and follow the CDC guidelines (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html). Second, I want to be responsible and consider the health of my community when I make decisions about where I go and what I do; I’ll be the first to say that quarantine isn’t “fun,” but I do want to take the fact that I traveled through a figurative sea of literal germs seriously, so I’m on quarantine for another eight days. Finally, I’m sure that many athletes and non-athletes alike will be wrestling with feelings of frustration over the coming weeks and months ahead. I already have. I’m OK with feeling some frustration, but I want to be intentional about finding joy in my life amid all the frustration, fear and uncertainly. I refuse to stop being productive in some way; I will continue to be diligent in my work, in my faith, and in my relationships.