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At The 'Quarantine Hotel,' Olympians Deal With Isolation And Shattered Dreams

Taylor Crabb, shown here during a 2019 beach volleyball match, tested positive upon arrival to Tokyo and was not able to compete at the Olympic Games.
Matteo Ciambelli
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Taylor Crabb, shown here during a 2019 beach volleyball match, tested positive upon arrival to Tokyo and was not able to compete at the Olympic Games.

TOKYO — Today, Reshmi Oogink finally gets to go home.

But it won't be the homecoming in the Netherlands she expected after the Tokyo Olympics.

She was aiming to showcase her skills in Taekwondo. This would have been her second Olympics representing her county.

To get here, she battled with knee injuries that stopped her from competing. She went through years of rehabilitation. Then, the pandemic hit. She had one chance to qualify for the Tokyo Games. In May, she prevailed.

This time, she said, she wanted to get past the quarterfinals. This time, maybe she'd get that medal.

But before her first competition on Tuesday, the fully vaccinated athlete tested positive for the coronavirus.

Oogink is one of at least 23 athletes who've gotten the dreaded news since arriving in Japan, dashing their hopes of representing their countries. They can't go home to seek solace with family and friends. To stop the spread of the coronavirus she was whisked off to what athletes are calling the "quarantine hotel," a Tokyo hotel converted into an isolation facility. They're in these hotel rooms for up to 10 days.

"I was fit to shine at my competition," she said. "This was supposed to be my last tournament."

An isolated athlete participates in the COVID Games

Oogink's been posting videos on Instagram to pass the time, to make her family laugh and to stop her mind from wandering to a dark place.

In her first video, she shares the news.

"Hey guys, welcome. Yesterday I tested positive for COVID," she says. "I was about to participate in Taekwondo — now I'm participating in something else."

She pans the camera to a sign she made and taped to the wall of her hotel room: "COVID GAMES"

She makes up events using whatever she can find in her suitcase and her room. Day one: "Saliva Throw."

She holds up the plastic tubes she has to spit in for her daily coronavirus test, then aims them at a Taekwondo helmet on top of her orange suitcase.

Another day, it's Clog Basketball. She shoots traditional miniature Dutch wooden shoes into a laundry bag taped above the doorway in the hotel room she's in 21 hours of her day. She's allowed in the lobby three times a day for meals. That's when she briefly sees others from her team that are also in isolation.

Lonely and bored, she took all her Taekwondo gear and stuffed the uniform with foam rollers, toilet paper, clothes and water bottles. Voila, a friend she named Bob. It's kind of reminiscent of "Wilson" from the movie Castaway, but Bob really does look like a real person.

On Instagram, she projects humor and grace in the face of devastation. But she said she has to fight to make sure she's not broken by the solitude.

On Tuesday, from her room, she watched others compete in the arena where she was supposed to be.

"It was very painful and hard," she said.

A U.S. beach volleyball player faced the hardest days of his life

U.S. beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb lived the same fate.

He did everything right.

As soon as he was eligible in Hawaii, he got the vaccine. He tested negative twice before leaving for Tokyo. In the two weeks before his flight, he says he fully isolated from everyone but his girlfriend and parents. When he landed in Japan, he went through immigration and did the required spit test for the coronavirus, then headed to baggage claim.

Then two men walked toward him and moved him away from everyone else.

"Right then I knew that it had to be something to do with the test," he said.

They whisked him off to the makeshift hospital in the Olympic Village and tested him again. Positive. His Olympic debut would not happen. He was taken to the isolation facility.

"It was without a doubt the hardest 10 days of my life," he said. "Obviously with the devastation of testing positive, but also being in that sort of quarantine. I had a window in my hotel room, but they lock it, so I didn't breathe fresh air for 10 days straight."

The Hawaii native grew up on the sand, in a volleyball family. He said it was the longest he can remember ever going without touching a volleyball.

He was luckier than others — the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee dropped off food for him to replace the meals at the hotel.

"The first day I was in quarantine my mom called me and she was like, 'if I fly over there, can I come quarantine with you?'" he said, laughing.

He told her no, "That's not how it works here."

Everyday, his parents and girlfriend would FaceTime him. On game days he speaks to his team and coach over the phone to strategize, and then he watches.

"I'm still part of the team and success is all of us still," Crabb said. "But at the same time, it's the weirdest feeling because when I watch and see them playing, of course thoughts in my head are like, 'That should be me. I should be out there.' But there's nothing more that I want than to see them succeed and help them succeed. It's bigger than me."

On Thursday, he flew home. His parents and girlfriend were waiting for him. The reunion brought relief.

"But at the same time, it was still super hard and emotional because I shouldn't have been coming back this early," he said. "This is not the way I wanted to come home and see them. I wanted to come home and see them after the Olympics and celebrate."

The silver lining for him: He only has to wait three years for the next Olympic Games.

Close contacts of positive cases also face crushed dreams

The coronavirus scares have been devastating for some people who didn't even catch the virus.

Two South African soccer players were the first to test positive at the Games. The loss of those athletes was a blow to their team. But then the rest of the players and coach had to go into quarantine as a precaution.

"We couldn't train," South African soccer coach David Notoane said after their first match and loss against Japan. "It's very difficult mentally to be stuck inside your room."

On top of all that they faced with the quarantine, Notoane said his team was "stigmatized" even after repeatedly testing negative.

"Often when people come across us, you see people running away, and I think that's a little bit disrespectful, COVID is something that we live with in our own normal lives outside of this tournament," he said. "If that could change, it's something that we would appreciate as a team. Treat us a little bit humanely."

They were knocked out of the Games after a devastating 3-0 loss to Mexico on Tuesday. On Friday, the team was on a plane home. They'd hoped to leave with at least a draw or a win.

"It was not to be," Notoane said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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