My Olympic Journey: Sick In South Korea

I never get sick ― not a cold, not a cough or sore throat.
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I arrived in South Korea fairly rested after 20 hours of travel, ready to try out the brand new bobsled track that was constructed for the 2018 Olympic Games. For safety reasons, host cities must offer training sessions before the Olympics to give everyone equal time to learn the new track. I was ready. I was excited.

I never get sick ― not a cold, not a cough or sore throat. Everyone around me can be hacking up a lung, and I’m fine. When we first talked about going to Korea for the World Cup this season, I remember wondering what the new track would look like, how good the food would be and the fact that I would be spending my third birthday in three years in a different country. While the talk of possible illness was also in the air, I never gave it a second thought, because again, I don’t get sick, and we were getting vaccinations. I’m invincible, of course.

It’s 1:30 a.m. and suddenly I’m awake. I’m so thirsty, and even though the room is freezing, I’m hot. As I lay there trying to understand why I’m awake, only having gone to bed three hours prior, I start to hear something that sounds out of place. I turn to my roommate, thinking she is also awake, only to find her out cold. As the noise continues I try to place it ― it sounds like waves crashing against rocks. I feel disoriented, a feeling that happens often on tour; we move hotels and countries weekly. Waking up not knowing where I am, what day of the week it is or even the month has become customary for me.

This feeling and this noise are different, though. I know what month it is; it’s March, March 6 in fact ― four days after my 33rd birthday. I also know where I am; I am in a hotel in PyeongChang South Korea, the location of the next winter Olympics and nowhere near an ocean.

As I continue to try and make sense of what is going on, I reach for my water, and a pain unlike anything I have ever felt before rolls through my body and takes my breath away. I try to breathe. I get hit again. I curl into a ball and let out a muffled groan into my pillow. As I roll around my bed writhing in pain, I begin to take a mental note of what I had eaten that day, trying to figure out what in the world could have implanted an alien into my body that was now trying to make its way out.

I spent the rest of the night split between my bed and the floor. The pain must have subsided or caused me to lose consciousness because I woke up the next morning covered in sweat and once again, disoriented. We had the day off, so I lingered in bed. I was afraid to wake whatever it was that had taken up residence in my body. By the time I worked up the nerve to get up, breakfast was almost over. The lack of hunger should have been an indication that something was wrong, but I was so relieved to have a break from last night’s horror show I didn’t think anything of it.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, I still didn’t have much of an appetite but forced myself to eat dinner anyway. As I got ready for bed, I could hear my stomach starting to gurgle again. The next morning I met with one of our medical providers to devise a plan. We tried to visit the medical clinic across from the hotel before training to see if we could get a handle on what was going on, but it was closed. I took a handful of Pepto-Bismol and hoped for the best. After the first run, I could tell I definitely wasn’t well. The pilots were taking three runs down the track that day, that but luckily I was only slated for two. After the second run, I could barely get out of the sled. My whole body ached, and the alien was back.

I was taken to the medical tent at the track to see the doctor on call. She explained that she was a neurologist, asked about my symptoms and suggested that I be transported to the emergency room via ambulance. After arguing back and forth about the overkill of an ambulance, we finally agreed on an IV for rehydration. For most people an IV isn’t a big deal, but for me and the rest of my teammates and fellow competitors, IVs are not allowed unless it’s an emergency, and even then special paperwork has to be filed with USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency). IVs can be used as a masking agent for prohibited substances. After being stuck in the arm twice unsuccessfully by a nurse (well, at least her track badge said she was a nurse), the idea of going to the hospital began to sound like a good plan. We took the 30-mile drive to the GangNeung Asan Hospital.

I travel quite a bit for both bobsled and leisure. I am used to being places where I don’t speak the language. What I am not use to is being in a part of a country where few people speak my language. Call it ignorance, arrogance or what have you, but most places I have visited, I was lucky enough to be able to get by with English.

Not here. As we walked into the hospital, we were greeted with stares. The track doctor recommended that we go to the emergency room because we would be seen faster than if we went to a clinic, and she had called ahead to let them know we were coming.

After a series of hand gestures and attempting to ask multiple people where to go, we found the emergency room. The nurse’s ability to take my blood and start the IV in one attempt immediately put me at ease. They ran me through a number of tests to come to the diagnosis of gastroenteritis, which is basically a fancy word for a stomach bug. After a few hours, I was hydrated and on my way with some antibiotics and the hope that this ordeal would soon be behind me.

As I mentioned earlier, I never get sick. I have no experience in losing my appetite, in unintentional weight loss, in not being able to get out of bed; in fact, I have always joked, “If I am ever too sick to eat, take me to the hospital.” Ask and you shall receive, I guess. After losing six pounds in three days, I can check getting sick in a foreign country off of my bucket list.