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Sims: Olympic bobsledder nearly ‘buried’ by COVID-19 warns others to be careful

Olympic gold medalist bobsledder Alex Kopacz knows a few things about recovering from bumpy rides.

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Olympic gold medalist bobsledder Alex Kopacz knows a few things about recovering from bumpy rides.

But COVID-19 may have given him the roughest one yet. “This is one of the best days I’ve had in a while,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday.

His energy was up and he wasn’t reaching for pain relievers. Three days in a row, it’s been good, he said.

But the last few weeks have been harrowing. In April, the 31-year-old sledder — who won gold with Justin Kripps in the two-man event in Pyeongchang in 2018 — contracted the virus and fell seriously ill. After a week of worsening symptoms, he was hospitalized in London and needed oxygen to breathe.

The near-death experience left him humbled.

Last week, Kopacz was recovering at home and believed the worst was behind him. Then came a stabbing pain in his leg, like a strange spasm that was so intense he couldn’t put weight on it.

“I thought, ‘What is this fresh hell?’” he said.

The pain showed up in his back and all through his chest. Then it intensified, so much so that the high-performance athlete returned to the hospital short of breath and convinced he was having a heart attack. “The pain was everywhere,” he said.

“I got to the point where I could barely move. I could barely take a breath. Each cough shot pain up to another level.”

It wasn’t COVID causing the pain, but a CT scan revealed the carnage left behind. “I do have clots all over my lungs, inside, outside, air bubbles too, apparently.”

We think of blood clots in the debate over vaccines but they are scary long-haul reminders for COVID survivors.  Kopacz said he is lucky, his clots are treatable.

“The only silver lining is that there was nothing that was immediately a smoking gun that was going to kill me,” he said.

But the pain has been nasty, something an athlete who has endured various injuries knew all too well.

“Now, I know what a clot feels like. Add that to the list of experiences,” Kopacz said.

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He was thinking, too, about the case spikes in Middlesex-London and all the people who haven’t survived.  The “heartbreaking” death of an 18-year-old man last week was a reminder the virus will show little mercy no matter what age.

Kopacz’s illness is a reminder, too, especially because he’s among an elite group that we might least expect to be grounded by COVID-19. He will tell you otherwise.

Kopacz believes he picked up the virus during a recent business trip to Calgary, likely while he was in Toronto’s Pearson airport. His business partner also tested positive, but his symptoms were just a headache and the loss of taste and smell.

“Then, you have me, who was almost buried by it,” he said.

He still can’t go for walks of any length because cool air hurts his lungs. Long conversations leave him exhausted. Lingering are the coughing fits that are the worst in the morning and evening.

He’s on inhalers, blood thinners and pain relievers. His lungs, he realizes, may never be the same. “I’ve lost a month of my life,” Kopacz said. “The thing that I hold on to, as far as positivity, is the fact that I am still alive.”

Someone asked him if he thought his body had let him down. Kopacz said he believes COVID “highjacked” all the things that kept him fit and healthy and used them to its advantage. He’s convinced science will discover, at some point, the key genetic markers that that are common to the most ill and those who succumbed to the disease.

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Even as we hope these are the waning days of the pandemic, Kopacz said we have to be careful, to be aware of possible symptoms and have them checked out. He wants a vaccination, but can’t get one for a couple of months until his body is stronger. The risks are still out there.

For a man who knew what made his body tick, function and achieve, it’s been an education.

“You cannot predict what the symptoms will do to you, how that it will affect you,” he said.



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