USA Judo & Team USA Doctor Christina Yannetsos Fights COVID-19 on Front Lines While Looking forward to the Tokyo 2020NE Olympic Games
Story by: Cecil Bleiker
Christina Yannetsos, MD (Denver, Colo.) had thought her Olympic opportunity had come and gone with the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Having qualified the United States of America for those Games in her judo weight class, she suffered a separated shoulder injury in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and did not end up making the team. She did make it to Athens and witnessed the 2004 Olympics, but it was as an alternate and training partner supporting the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. With her Olympic dream in the rearview mirror, she pursued her life dream of becoming a Medical Doctor which she did and currently serves as an emergency room physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine for the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine in Denver. A lifelong judoka, Dr. Yannetsos has continued her passionate involvement with USA Judo, now serving as the official Head Team Physician for the USA Judo Team.
In late 2019, Dr. Yannetsos received a telephone call from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Vice President of Sports Medicine, Research and Innovation Dustin Nabhan inviting her to serve the 2020 United States Olympic Team as a Sports Medicine team member for the official Team USA Delegation to the now 2020NE Tokyo Olympic Games in Japan. Honored and thrilled to be on a different path to fulfill an altered Olympic dream, Christina started planning and preparing to be at her best to support the USA Olympians this summer in Tokyo. That was until COVID-19 had other plans not only for her summer Olympic plans, but for her day-to-day work and existence.
Having made lifelong friends all over the world from her time as an elite USA Judo athlete, Christina likely was more aware and paid very close attention early on to the developments of the fight against the Coronavirus as it publicly emerged in China in December 2019 and as it started to spread to Korea, Japan, other mostly Asian countries and cruise ships. Keith Bryant, USA Judo Chief Executive Officer, and the High Performance Team were in frequent communication with her monitoring the situation as it began to spread. Communication at that time consisted primarily of recommendations to keep the USA Judo athletes healthy and safe as they started their final push to securing their points based Olympic qualification slots through the International Judo Federation’s World Tour. With most upcoming tournaments in February scheduled to take place in Europe all seemed well with the athlete’s from COVID-19 hot zone countries not permitted to travel and compete. Most of February went well for the USA Judo Team with a high point coming on February 21st with Angelica Delgado’s (Miami, Fla./Ki-itsu-sai National Training Center/New York Athletic Club) season’s best bronze medal performance at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam in Germany putting her on the trajectory of a highly coveted potential seeded position in the 2020 Olympic bracket of the women’s 52kg division.
Buoyed by Delgado’s performance the USA Judo Team was further energized for the final Olympic push. In late February, the communication between Dr. Yannetsos and the USA Judo staff at One Olympic Plaza in Colorado Springs became almost constant as the Coronavirus was now rearing its ugly head in more and more countries around the world. Then suddenly things got “real”, real fast when the Rabat Grand Prix in Morocco scheduled for March 3-6, 2020 was suspended due to COVID-19. Past that unexpected speed bump the USA Judo Team prepared for the following weekend’s scheduled Grand Slam event in Ekaterinburg, Russia all while Dr. Yannetsos and the USA Judo staff constantly monitored the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organizations recommendations as well as those of the USOPC and the International Judo Federation. On the morning of Monday, March 9, 2020 USA Judoka Adonis Diaz (Hialeah, Fla./Ki-itsu-sai National Training Center/NYAC/ 60kg Male) boarded a plane bound for Moscow, Russia enroute to to the tournament in Ekaterinburg where he (currently fifth on the U.S. Olympic qualification list) looked to improve upon on his overall 2020 Olympic qualification status. At some point in mid flight somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean the Judo world changed forever when the IJF announced the immediate cancellation of all Olympic qualifying events through April. The IJF cancellations were eventually extended through at least the end of June 2020.
“Things were happening really quickly,” said Dr. Yannetsos. “Our day-to-day in the emergency department was changing quickly as well. As things were changing we kept up with the CDC and I sought advice through some of our Infectious Disease physicians and some of the leaders here at the University of Colorado just to make sure we were doing all the right things to keep our athletes safe. I’m not competing anymore, but I think of the athletes as my colleagues and teammates and I want them to be safe, healthy and successful.”
As elite level international Judo came to a screeching halt on March 9, 2020 and COVID-19 cases began to exponentially grow in the United States it soon became apparent that postponement of domestic sporting events in the United States was becoming more than just contingency planning and was indeed the future likely reality. USA Judo was among the first of the U.S. National Governing Bodies and domestic sports organizations to face this reality with the postponement of the 2020 Youth National Championships scheduled for March 28-29, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. By late afternoon Thursday, March 12th USA Judo announced that that event would not be going forward as planned. The next day it was announced that the event had been rescheduled for August 29-30, 2020 also in Salt Lake City. Throughout this whole process, Dr. Yannetsos’ medical expertise was called upon to counsel USA Judo decision makers.
Christina also credits having friends she made during her days of elite international competition from all over the world for helping her be on top of the evolving pandemic, “I feel like we are all blessed, and also kind of cursed, with social media. We have availability of information that we didn’t have before. There are a number of people that I either trained with at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center (Colorado Springs) while I was there or that I was an athlete when they were like Keith Morgan who is in Canada and a Sports Medicine physician or Jenny Wong who was a wrestler and works with USA Wrestling. There are a number of athletes who have become medical personnel or just athletes around the world that you know. You can see how people are doing and how things have impacted them. We have family currently stationed in northern Italy as well. Here in the United States the last thing we wanted was to have this virus explode like it had in other countries. We were/are trying to heed the warnings from those other countries (that are ahead of us) and we are trying to proceed cautiously.”
At the same time Dr. Yannetsos was preparing to meet the beast head on in her hospital’s emergency room in Denver. Colorado began seeing COVID-19 positives in the high country mountain towns and Denver metropolitan area in early March 2020. The thing that the COVID beast didn’t expect though is that it would be locked in combat with not just any other Doctor, but an elite USA judoka trained Doctor.
“In being an emergency physician, you go through medical school, you go through years of training and nothing prepares you for what you see and face every day in the emergency department with COVID,” said Dr. Yannetsos. “It’s as if everything that we’ve learned has kind of been thrown out in the woods so to speak. We learn and train that when someone is in distress, run in and help save them and now we are focusing on making sure everyone is protected. Make sure you have your protective gear on gowns, protective masks and face shields. The donning and doffing of putting on and taking off of this gear is quite laborious to be honest; it takes time. There are real exposure risks, which is why protective equipment is so important to us and why we protect ourselves.”
Christina says that she has called upon the life lessons she learned during her judo career to help her and her colleagues in their current battle.
“I think the main thing when you think of a wartime mentality is the camaraderie. It’s the team building experience for lack of a better word. I think of my Judo team when you’re training and trying to get to the Olympics, you build this bond with people and you go through the ‘trenches’ and you go through some really tough times. You have each other to pick each other up. You have each other to push you through really tough situations. We have so many amazing people that work in our facility and that’s who we turn to. It’s team camaraderie. Also, as an athlete you focus on being your best. Sound of mind, thought and sound of body. The importance of taking care of yourself, exercising, eating right and sleeping. It comes into play also as a physician going through this pandemic. You have to have your own mantra, whatever it is. Every day when I go into work I think about ‘I’m going to save lives today,’ or whatever it is to get you through. For me I actually wear some socks that I think are going to give me super powers whether it’s like ‘girl doc’s rock’ or ‘go girl doc’ whatever it is; I wear those and those give me strength. But it’s kind of like mental preparation. You go into the department and you kind of have this game plan. For me, I drive in and I listen to some upbeat music and I’m like ‘it’s a great day to save lives.’ You go in and you’re in your competition mindset, you’re focused, focused on the next patient. You have a difficult case which can be a difficult match and you kind of have to bring yourself back together and get yourself back in the mindset so that you can move forward to help the next person. So I think there are a lot of parallels, especially with competition.”
The State of Colorado, as much of the rest of the United States took aggressive steps starting in the middle of March 2020 declaring a public health state of emergency and issuing statewide “stay at home” orders to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” which has shown to be mostly successful to this point. As of April 30, 2020 the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and State Emergency Operations reported a to-date total of 15,284 cases with 777 deaths. On Monday, April 26, 2020 Colorado started the careful transition to the “safer at home” phase in the first step in an attempt to return to some normalcy. The USA Judo and worldwide Judo community should be confident knowing that Dr. Yannetsos’s voice is being heard by Colorado national governmental leaders and their staffs. On Wednesday, April 28, 2020 Dr. Yannetsos and some of her colleagues from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) participated in virtual meeting regarding COVID-19 and issues facing emergency departments and healthcare workers with U.S. Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, as well as U.S. Representative’s Doug Lamborn, Diana DeGette, Ken Buck and Jason Crow.
While consumed with helping patients battling COVID-19 and far too busy to be concerned with non-immediate matters, the not so small matter of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee’s joint decision to postpone for one year the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an event in which she was to play a critical role for Team USA was announced.
Undeterred, Christina still looks for the positives, “all of these athletes have worked so hard and they’ve put their lives on hold to reach a goal and have this accomplishment of training for the Olympics and medaling at the Olympics and all of a sudden they are being told that they have to wait another year. I know that all of us will come through and succeed with it, but it’s still challenging. Putting your life on hold and having things change, I think that’s why we’re very adaptable and so I know that our mental strength will be able to overcome that. The risk of COVID is very real. Ultimately I think they (Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee) made the best decision when they moved forward to postpone the Games. Dating back to Ancient Greece sport and the Olympics brought together people at times of great difficulties. Wars would be stopped for the Olympics. I think that the athletes represent hope, normalcy and achievements that people really look forward to watching and supporting. I think that at the end of all of this the Olympics are going to represent hope for people. There’s no greater joy that I get than working with our athletes and supporting our athletes. It’s so very rewarding intrinsically for me. I’m truly honored.”
It’s safe to say that the athlete’s and all supporters of USA Judo are honored to have one of their own serving on the front lines as a hero during this worldwide war on COVID-19.
Previous articles on and by Dr. Christina Yannetsos can be found at the following links: