Culture

How COVID derailed my world championships at the last moment

Finchamp trained harder than ever this year. And then, a week before worlds, she tested positive for Covid-19 and found herself sidelined and stunned.

June 11 was one of the proudest moments in my career; that day I was named to the Olympic Long Team for USA Cycling. I remember the gratitude that enveloped my body, the flood of incoming texts of congratulations, and ideas and dreams that suddenly felt so close I could almost reach out and grab them.

I had summited a mountain and was looking out over the view. It was a moment of celebration. It was years of hard work, taking small steps, anchoring hiking sticks into the ground, and pulling my way up the side of the hill. When I stood looking out over the view, I knew I would look ahead up to the next mountain. There is always more to climb. It’s a good thing I was more motivated than ever.

I trained harder than ever this year. I put in significantly more hours on the bike. My coach pulled out all of the tricks. The workouts were brutal. I did race simulations on my home trails, intervals that left me sitting on the side of the road, and long solo rides high up in the mountains. Nutrition was dialed, recovery was a priority. When you chase after a goal this big, you can see it shine through in every action you make. This year was not a lost year for me. Despite nearly no racing opportunities, this was my opportunity to try to make improvements.

The day after being named to the Olympic Long Team I began planning a trip to the world championships and the World Cup racing that immediately preceded it. Since then, it’s been nearly five months of logistical planning. I spent hours on the phone with my team director from Orange Seal and USA Cycling. We adapted. We made plans. We changed plans. We dealt with an unbelievable amount of uncertainty. We planned everything we could without having all of the answers and we came up with plans A-Z. Then the moment finally came. Almost four months later, I had to make a decision: Would I actually get on the plane?

The decision was agonizing. I wanted to go and race my bike on the world stage more than anything, but I understood the risk. Traveling to Europe and competing against athletes from countries all over the world created an inherent risk. The reality was that I could get COVID and I could get stuck in Europe. I made pros and cons lists. I enlisted the advice of everyone around me. I went back and forth. It is probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, trumped only by deciding to postpone my wedding, which was a decision I made just last month. Postponing my wedding was to keep everyone else safe, but I knew that when going to Europe and taking proper precautions, the risk was almost entirely my own.

I worked closely with my team, and we made the decision that I would come to Europe because we had to try. I’ve put my heart and soul into my dreams on the bike, and to deny myself the chance to chase them felt like the thing that would bring the most regret. The Orange Seal Off-Road Team supported my decision; they too invested an enormous amount of time and energy in the process, but they made it clear that they would support me no matter what decision I made.

So on September 24, I boarded a plane to the Czech Republic. I had stacks of documents signed by government officials, doctors, the UCI, and USA Cycling. I took three COVID tests (all with negative results) in staggered intervals before leaving the USA so that I knew for sure I was not bringing anything with me. When I arrived in Europe, I took another COVID test. It was also negative. It felt surreal that it was actually happening. The trip that felt nearly impossible to plan had finally come to fruition.

The days leading up to the Nové Město World Cup went very smoothly. We developed a bubble with a select group of individuals and staff. I wore a mask at all times when not eating or riding. We had bottles of hand sanitizers everywhere. I even wore a mask on the rollers in the box, all the way up until the start line on Thursday. Everything really seemed to go according to plan.

Since arriving in Europe, I have had a mask on constantly, except for when eating or racing.

On Thursday in the race I felt strong. The legs felt good and I felt like the form was definitely there. I had a really great start and moved up quickly. My nerves and excitement got the best of me though and I started to make mistakes and had multiple crashes. The stimulation in my mind was a bit too high and I needed to calm down. In the end, the result was not what I had hoped for. This trip was so many months in the making and it was my first mountain bike race of the year. It only made sense that I was a little overly nervous. I shook it off. I was completely confident that the next race would be better. The next two days were filled with preparation, and on Saturday we took another COVID test.

On Sunday, October 4, I woke up ready to race my bike against the best in the world. I ate my pre-race breakfast and I sat on my bed waiting to kit up. I felt ready. At 8:20 a.m. I got a text. It was in German, but the word “POSITIV” jumped out. How was this possible?

The European director from my team who was here with me immediately went to work helping me solve the problem. We called USA Cycling. They called the testing company. The only way I could get re-tested was to drive to Prague, nearly two hours away. My chance of racing on Sunday was done.

When I got to Prague I took PCR test and paid for expedited results. I would have them in the next two hours. We began to drive back to Nové Město and 90 minutes into the drive I got the email with my second result. This time the words were in Czech, but the big red word still leaped off of the page: Pozitivni. We pulled off of the highway, parked on the side of the road with no one around, and I sat on the ground and I cried.

It felt like my world was crashing around me.

The next 48 hours were extremely challenging emotionally. My physical symptoms were extremely mild; the pain was entirely mental.

I immediately began to quarantine and I am in close communication with the Team USA doctor. We are following all the proper protocols. My team has been by my side, metaphorically speaking, the entire time. We are talking on the phone every day.

I’m so grateful that Orange Seal sent the European director here with me so that I have someone to deliver me food and I feel safe knowing that if my health were to suddenly and unexpectedly decline I have someone close by. I will continue to quarantine in Czech until the Team USA doctor gives me to the green light to fly home knowing that I am not putting anyone else at risk.

At the moment, it feels like I’ve been thrust from a peak down into a valley. I turn and I see an enormous mountain to climb. At first, it seems too big, but then I remember that’s how all of this started. I’m always climbing mountains. I want to celebrate at the summit, but more importantly, I want to grow and I want to never give up. My goals remain the same, and when it’s safe, I’ll be climbing the next mountain one pedal stroke at the time. At the beginning of this article, I recalled that I “was” more motivated than ever, but that really should be in the present tense, because I still am.