This article is part of ESPN’s Women’s History Month.
COVID-19 ravaged the world in 2020. The virus, which was silently transmitted, brought services to their knees. Those working on the frontlines were not just doctors, nurses, teachers or police anymore. Suddenly, they were counsellors to members of their communities who had lost everything.
Amid this, elite women athletes who normally balance sport and their vocation stepped up.
They were a person’s last friendly face before they slipped away. They were the hand people held as they struggled to breathe while families’ watched on through Zoom. They were the ones telling people everything would be OK, even if they couldn’t promise it would be.
“I saw so many patients who I felt wouldn’t have been sick if it wasn’t for this,” Niamh Cooper, an A&E doctor and Surrey Storm netball player, tells ESPN.
– ESPN Cover story: COVID-19 From fields to field hospitals
“They can’t have their daughter, they can’t have their husband there to hold their hand and be like: ‘Don’t worry it’s going to be fine.’
“It puts an awful lot of extra pressure on the likes of me and the nursing staff to reassure them and then to go out and ring their family and reassure them as well and quite often you can’t reassure them because you are not quite sure how they are going to be in a few days time or even a few hours time.”
Cooper’s experiences were the realities for a number of athletes who would normally use sport to balance out the harder aspects of their job. But when the world of sport shut down, there was no release.
“Inside yourself, you are like: ‘I’m struggling.’ Then you have to go and try and deal with members of the public that are struggling and you are having to take away even more of their liberties in an environment where everyone’s liberties have already been limited,” constable detective and England lacrosse international Emma Adams says.
“It’s that bringing more bad news to an already bad situation, that is what it kind of felt like a lot of the time.”
These are the stories of the elite athletes who gave up everything from their sport to their families to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.
For Adams, the reality of COVID-19 started to hit home when she returned to work after suffering from a chest infection in the early days of the pandemic.
“I came back and in my first shift I think we had 7 sudden deaths and all of them were COVID related,” she says. “For me that was really, really shocking and scary and I thought: ‘Oh my God, I could potentially be getting this.”
She is part of a safety neighbourhood team where her main role was going into communities and dealing with the public.
“For us that was a really difficult thing to comprehend because a lot of the time when we are dealing with people that need to be arrested, some of the times we do need to get hands on,” she says.
“So for us it was quite scary, if I’m being honest, because we were in a position where we were being told if you get near to people you could potentially catch this virus which is killing hundred and thousands of people, but you still have to do that because that’s your job.”
Adams’ role was made more difficult by the lack of access to PPE. Many struggled to get their hands on the protective gear at the beginning as demand far outweighed supply. This often left her and her colleagues walking into situations completely unprotected.
“I don’t think we got masks for about a month and we’ve only just started using full PPE now,” she says.
“When there is a sudden death, we have to go, we have to search the body, you have to be in the environment, so without PPE it was all quite scary.”
Paralympic table tennis player and primary school teacher Sue Gilroy was also deeply aware of the dangers associated with the virus. She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Syndrome which put her in the “high risk” category. In England, people in this category were advised to not go out under any circumstances. If they could, they were asked to get shopping delivered and only exercise where there were no other people.
“Training shut down completely, so that was really difficult because with my disability as well, if I’m not training then obviously my pain levels and disability gets a lot worse as well,” she tells ESPN.
“Me particularly being a key worker, I tend to do a lot of my training at night and at weekends, and so I couldn’t do any of that. We weren’t going to tournaments and things which we haven’t done now for over a year. That’s a big change.”
It wasn’t just their work and training that was missing from their lives. Wales rugby player and midwife Jade Knight spent 12 weeks away from her five-year-old son Emrys as she worked in London and he stayed with family.
“It was an extremely intense time. I look back like how did I get through it because it was horrendous,” she tells ESPN.
“It was such a chuck in the deep end, having to learn to put your PPE on first and your emergency second and just have an actual midwifery change, but then not being able to come home after that horrendous shift or just a tough training day and not have a little cwtch [hug] with my little boy. It was tough.
“Or finally, get the speak to him on Facetime and he’d be crying. It was really tough. We got through it. Hopefully we’re stronger for it. But yeah, I don’t take it for granted now.”
For Lucy Gossage, a former pro-triathlete and oncologist, it was the frustration of seeing the people around her not understand how bad the situation was that got to her. “Obviously at the start we were terrified and washing all the time, I found it quite hard because I think I was more nervous at the start that the general public and I found I was getting very frustrated at people who were just, particularly the guy I live with like: ‘Chill out it’s not going to be anything,” she tells ESPN.
“Then, when I went back to work, I realised you can’t just be paranoid.”
The people they’ll never forget
Separating what you needed to do to keep people safe and also appreciating the suffering they experienced was one of the hardest aspects of her police job, says Adams.
“It was things like when we would have to go and tell people off for sitting in a park, it’s your job so you know you have to do it but you feel terrible because people are just trying to get on with their life in the best way they can, but they are also breaching rules,” she says.
“We are there to make sure people stay safe, and that’s what you had to remind yourself of. It was a massive challenge when you could see that individuals were really struggling.”
There was one woman in particular who sticks out in her mind. She was 23 years old with four children under the age of four. Adams had been called to her house about three months into lockdown because a friend was worried she was going to harm herself. She had lost her job and was struggling to cope.
“When I spoke to her, she just sat there and said: ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I’m never going to be able to get a job back again, I’ve got four kids I can’t look after, I can’t feed them, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, I don’t want to be here anymore.’
“That for me was really difficult because when you’re already in a position yourself where life is pretty hard, trying to tell someone else to stay alive and to get them that help was a difficult scenario.
“It really hit home how hard this is hitting people, I have a job and I was lucky that I kept my job and I will always be lucky in that respect, but not everyone has been that lucky.”
Gilroy saw firsthand the effects the pandemic was having on children who were forced indoors in front of screens for hours on end every day. She missed the face-to-face aspect of her job and seeing the children on a daily basis.
“I think of the impact on children and families as well,” she says. “When they’re at home, the interaction with the friends, the loss of learning as well. During the first lockdown, children were in but it wasn’t a full teaching curriculum that we’ve got through this lockdown, and I think it has been better this time.
“That first one where there were so many months where we weren’t able to do proper lessons for children… So it is challenging, particularly for families, or those who are still trying to work.”
Pregnancy normally comes with a few natural worries but carrying a child during a pandemic and without the support you would normally have of your partner or family for appointments was tough on women, Knight says.
“Being pregnant the first time is quite scary for a lot of women, but then in a pandemic when we didn’t have much research on coronavirus and then obviously with all the policies changing for a lot of hospitals, partners weren’t allowed in for labor. And that was a big question that women would ask quite frequently,” she adds.
“It was obviously supporting them and always being communication first and informing them of everything so they didn’t have to come into even more unknowns. I think the unknown is what’s scary and the unpredictability is what’s super scary.”
International netballer Niamh Cooper explains how she has dealt with returning to work full-time as an A&E doctor during the pandemic.
Cooper faced many of these unknowns in A&E. Unlike normal times when people would be at hand to support their families, there was just Cooper and her colleagues. There is one woman that sticks out in her mind. She was a similar age to her mum with three or four children and was suffering from breast cancer. Her prognosis wasn’t good but she had at least a year to live. She was feeling more short of breath than normal and ended up in A&E where she tested positive for COVID-19.
“When I saw her she was really sick but she had no concept of how sick she was,” Cooper says.
“I could tell by her test results that things didn’t look very good, and she probably, there was a good chance that this could be a life ending event for her. Which probably would mean she might only have a few weeks opposed to a year and she told me these stories about her daughters and it just made me think about what it would be like if that was my mum and I would want to be in hospital with my mum and be with her.
“She couldn’t have them there and all she could do was phone them, and she had no idea how long she would be in hospital for, when she would be home, if it would be worth her being in hospital, if she should just go home and be with them. It was really hard, it really hit me, it really pulled my heartstrings.”
Finding some normality
There are many ways in which March 2021 is a different picture to March 2020. There are millions of vaccines being administered around the world every week. COVID-19 is still a silent and threatening virus but we understand it better. There is less of the chaos and more of a quiet trauma after a year of lockdowns and fear.
For the five women, some have been able to return to their sports. Cooper is back playing with Surrey Storm in the Netball Superleague. Knight has halted her midwifery duties to focus on preparing for the postponed 2021 Six Nations tournament in a month. Gossage is planning her next crazy challenge.
For Adams and Gilroy, however, they are still waiting to find out when they can return to training and matches. For Gilroy in particular, whose disability is considerably helped by activity, it has been a hard year of waiting.
“Training shut down completely, so that was really difficult because with my disability as well,” she says. “If I’m not training then obviously my pain levels and disability gets a lot worse as well. So I’ve got sort of the medical side as well that it impacted quite badly as well.
“We’re going to have to turn up to a qualification tournament [for the Toyko Olympics] and try and beat the best in the world when little we’ve had no competitive matches. We haven’t played with foreign players for well over a year, so it’s going to be extremely challenging that.”
In the United Kingdom, lacrosse is considered a “recreational” sport as it is not included in the Olympics or Commonwealth games. That lack of status has left Adams and her teammates in a state of limbo.
“I think, as an international athlete who trains however many hours a week — we don’t get paid — for our sport to be called recreational, I found it so insulting because I am like, you don’t understand the hours we put in.” she says. “How can you refer to us as recreational? And, I am sure there is a lot that goes into those decisions, but it’s that lack of elite status that has really punished us.”
The lacrosse World Cup was supposed to be held in July 2021 but was postponed in December for a year due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Cooper agrees with the decision to postpone it and to some extent relieved as it would give them a better opportunity to train.
“Now we are in a limbo where we are ready to start training for that World Cup and we are just stuck,” she says. “We can’t and it’s that fear of when can we?
“You train to play, you train to play competitively, that’s the best part of the sport, I love competing.
“I think that’s what has been really hard, you don’t have that motivation. You don’t have that end goal. Having an end goal in 2022 is quite a difficult thing because you need those short-term goals and those are lacking.
“So I think that has been the biggest challenge for us, is just the constant up and down, the happiness of getting back to training and then that just being ripped away and there’s no end goal in sight really.”
If there is one thing that occurs over multiple conversations with these women it is the perspective the year has given them on life. For some it helped them rearrange their training regimes while for others it just gave them the confidence they can achieve anything.
For Gossage the pandemic and enforced rest actually helped the 41-year-old get off the “treadmill” of high volume training and reduce the intensity that she had been used to for several years.
“I realised that I will always exercise for mental health. It helped me evaluate why I was carrying on doing what I have always done, but I think the other thing it did make me realise is that I do need adventure, and I got inventive about creating ways of putting myself out of my comfort zone even with lockdown,” Gossage tells ESPN.
“I don’t need to be training like a professional, I don’t need to be in races to feel challenged, but I do need to be out of my comfort zone and have things that scare me and excite me.”
Knight has returned to rugby full-time and is preparing for the delayed Six Nations in a month’s time. She chuckles slightly when asked if she is nervous about returning to competing:
“For me, I’ve already been in the deep end, so coming back to sport is actually a relief. I mean, it’s a coping mechanism, you know, the benefits outweigh the risk for me personally. Everyone else will feel differently, but in my sense that I’d much rather be there than not be there.”