Olympic Gold Medalist Recovering From COVID-19: ‘Worst Virus I Ever Endured’

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 09: Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa celebrates after winning the Men's 100m Breaststroke on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Optus Aquatic Centre on April 9, 2018 on the Gold Coast, Australia.
(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

As young people continue to flout social distancing guidelines under the presumption that COVID-19 poses no threat to them whatsoever, South African swimmer Cameron Van der Burgh, who won a gold medal for the 100-meter breaststroke during the 2012 London Olympics, said that it is probably the worst virus he has ever endured as he awaits full recovery.

In a series of Twitter posts on Sunday, Van der Burgh said that he has been struggling with COVID-19 for 14 days, which has given him “serious fatigue” and a persistant cough.

“Some personal thoughts/observations for athletes health, the summer games & my own experience with contracting Covid19,” Van der Burgh said in his tweet. “I have been struggling with Covid-19 for 14 days today. By far the worst virus I have ever endured despite being a healthy individual with strong lungs (no smoking/sport), living a healthy lifestyle and being young (least at-risk demographic).”

“Although the most severe symptoms(extreme fever) have eased, I am still struggling with serious fatigue and a residual cough that I can’t shake. Any physical activity like walking leaves me exhausted for hours,” he continued. “The loss in body conditioning has been immense and can only feel for the athletes that contract Covid-19 as they will suffer a great loss of current conditioning through the last training cycle. Infection closer to competition being the worst.”

Van der Burgh warned athletes currently training for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo that they could be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk, especially if they get the virus and immediately jump back into conditioning.

“Athletes will continue to train as there is no clarification re summer Games and thus are exposing themselves to unnecessary risk – and those that do contract will try rush back to training most likely enhancing/extending the damage/recovery time,” he concluded. “Please, look after yourself everyone! Health comes first – COVID-19 is no joke!”

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced on Monday that it would be postponing the Tokyo Summer Games. The announcement came after both Canada and Australia pledged not to send their teams to compete for this year.

Van der Burgh’s revelation about his struggle with COVID-19 correlates with recent data out of both New York and Italy showing that the virus may not be as innocuous towards young people as once thought. Though the disease predominantly kills the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, that does not mean young people necessarily have nothing to worry about.

From KPBS:

New data from the Centers for Disease Control show it’s not just the elderly who are vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19. Young people are at risk too.

The CDC looked at about 2,500 cases in the U.S. between Feb. 12–March 16 and found around 40% of those patients needing hospitalization were between the ages of 20 and 54.

While the risk of dying is much higher among patients 65 and older, the data shows younger people are still susceptible to severe cases of the illness, which is a sharp contrast to previous beliefs.

Kate Grusich, a spokeswoman for the CDC, did say, however, that the study conducted by the agency about young people did not check to see if affected individuals had underlying health conditions.

“COVID-19 is a new disease and we are learning more about it every day. Based on available information and clinical expertise, we believe that older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying health conditions may be at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19,” Grusich told KPBS. “Currently detailed data on serious underlying health conditions are not available.”

That aside, Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, said that young people who get the virus can also spread it much faster than the elderly because they are far more social.

“Young people do get sick, but more importantly they are carriers and get infected just like everyone. And they carry it to more places. They often see way more people… than someone who is older in their homes or a nursing home,” Ding said. “It’s not just age, but risk factors that you have. For example, cardiovascular risk factors, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and of course all your lung diseases like bronchitis, asthma… and of course if you’re a smoker, which many young people are.”

“It’s usually because of one of these, but there are stories of someone in their 20s and 30s who are hospitalized or in critical condition,” he continued. “That’s worrisome, but we obviously don’t know all the risk factors because the virus is just so new. But often times it is a combination of age and these wide-range risk factors.”

WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went so far to issue a warning on Friday to young people ignoring the call to social distance.

“Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant portion of patients requiring hospitalization,” Ghebreyesus said. “I have a message for young people, you’re not invincible, this virus could put you in the hospital for weeks, or even kill you.”