Athletes join the fight against COVID-19

Olympic champions Paula Pareto, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Joyce Sombroek are among the health workers confronting the Coronavirus pandemic head-on.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Athletes are among those leading the response to Coronavirus around the world.

Some have successfully combined medical studies or nursing with their sporting careers, while others have switched to health work after retirement.

For World Health Day, IOC President Thomas Bach paid tribute to all healthcare workers, and reserved a mention for the Olympic athletes who are working on the medical front-lines.

"Many members of the Olympic community and many Olympic athletes are part of your teams. They are working in hospitals and healthcare facilities," he noted.

Argentina's reigning Olympic -48kg judo champion Paula Pareto is one of those who have joined the effort to fight COVID-19.

After spending two weeks in self-isolation following the Yekaterinburg Grand Slam, Pareto returned to the San Isidro Hospital just north of Buenos Aires where she works as an orthopaedic doctor.

She quoted Winston Churchill in her first post while back at work, saying: "We are the masters of our fate. The task which has been set us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause and an unconquerable willpower, victory will be within our grasp."

Referring to her own circumstances, she added, "Although orthopaedic doctors are not on the front line, we are a part of the health team facing this pandemic and we will help where necessary."

Former Dutch hockey goalie Joyce Sombroek, a gold medallist at London 2012 and silver medallist at Rio 2016, is helping the effort in her homeland.

One of the most successful goalkeepers in history, Sombroek was forced to retire after Rio due to recurring hip problems.

After that, she completed her medical studies at Amsterdam's Vrjie Universiteit and has worked in departments including Emergency Rooms before beginning her training as a GP in March.

That is on the backburner for now because of the COVID-19 pandemic with the 29-year-old telling FIH, "The most important thing is providing care to those who need it. I’m really happy that I can do my job, and I think that accounts for everyone working in healthcare or other vital job."

When she's not stopping shots, Australia hockey goalie Rachael Lynch is a nurse in Perth.

She has worked in neuro-rehabilitation, helping patients who have suffered strokes or live with multiple sclerosis, throughout her 13-year international career.

But all efforts are now being channelled into dealing with COVID-19.

Jo Brigden-Jones found out only last week that she would be going to her second Olympic Games.

The Australian sprint kayaker competed at London 2012 but narrowly missed out on Rio 2016.

After the disappointment of Rio, she started working full time in her "dream career" as a paramedic for NSW Ambulances and has since combined this with training and motivational speaking.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Brigden-Jones told ABC Grandstand that she had been instructed to leave Sydney for the Gold Coast for intensive training ahead of Tokyo 2020.

But the postponement of the Games meant that move was shelved, and she has returned to work as a paramedic where she is transporting people suffering from Coronavirus.

Two-time Scottish curling champion Vicky Wright has returned to nursing having been due to compete in Canada at the World Curling Championships.

Wright, who now plays lead in Sochi 2014 bronze medallist Eve Muirhead's rink, flew out with the team to Prince George before the event was cancelled.

The 26-year-old switched to curling full-time in July last year in order to focus on Beijing 2022, but she was able to continue working occasionally at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital near Falkirk.

She told British Curling, "Both the NHS and British Curling enabled me to do one shift a week throughout this season. It was something I really enjoyed and I didn’t want to lose my skills and it was good to have something else other than just curling, it really kept me grounded.

"Being a nurse has always given me a good perspective on life and kept my focus on what is important."

Two-time Paralympian Kim Daybell is also assisting the British National Health Service in its time of need.

The 27-year-old was born with Poland's Syndrome which means he has next to no chest muscles on one side of his body, but that has not stopped him pursuing his love of table tennis and medicine.

He completed his medicine degree at the University of Leeds in 2018 and has since worked part-time as a junior doctor at the Whittington Hospital in North London.

He was due to start training full-time for Tokyo 2020 last week but the postponement of the Games meant a change of plan for Daybell.

He told British Para Table Tennis, "I was coming to the end of my F1 year and due to be finishing to train full-time but they asked if I would come on a full-time rota, which I have started doing this week. I’m finishing surgery and will be a medical SHO (senior house officer) managing COVID patients.

"I want to try and help as best I can and it is quite nice to be able to do that. One of the things that people seem to be struggling with is that feeling of powerlessness where they can’t do anything. I’m lucky to have the skill-set to help fight what is going on and that is a positive that I’m taking."

Atletico Madrid vice-captain Silvia Meseguer has volunteered to help in the field hospital set up in the IFEMA exhibition complex in Spain's capital.

Meseguer quit international football last year to focus on her last year of medical school.

She told Atletico Madrid's official website, "Seeing the situation we are experiencing, I think anything we can contribute right now is important. I still don't have a medical degree because I have yet to finish my final project, but if they need help from students, of course I will."

Four-time Olympic ice hockey gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser retired from the sport in 2017 to go to medical school.

The 41-year-old combines her final year of studies at the University of Calgary with being the Toronto Maple Leafs' Assistant Director of Player Development and a member of the IOC Athletes' Commission.

Since January, Wickenheiser has been helping patients in hospital emergency rooms in and around Toronto.

Australians feature prominently among athletes working in health services with two-time 400m hurdles world champion Jana Pittman recently qualifying as a doctor.

Pittman, the only Australian woman to appear in both Summer and Winter Olympic Games (she competed in bobsleigh at Sochi 2014), had her first day on shift in January and gave this advice to Australians along with her daughter Emily.