‘I curled up on the floor, crying’: Inside an Olympian’s COVID-19 heartbreak

·7-min read

TOKYO — Katie Lou Samuelson’s grade school basketball coach once told her she’d become an Olympian, and that’s the moment she thought back on when the dream came true.

I wanna do that, sixth grade Katie Lou had said, and 13 years later, a USA Basketball director called to tell her she’d done it. She thought back on a decade-plus of dedication and growth. On how, en route to UConn and the WNBA, she’d taken up the 3x3 version of the sport. On how she’d flown back to Florida from Europe solely to get vaccinated in April, to ensure she could compete at an Olympic qualifying tournament COVID-19 free.

In May, she skipped WNBA games to jet to Austria for that tournament, and earned the U.S. a place at 3x3 basketball’s Olympic debut. She rushed to hug her teammates. A brilliant smile lit up her face. Over the next month and a half, she received the official training camp invite, and posed for Team USA photos, and prepared for Tokyo.

And then, some 48 hours before her flight, she got another call that sent her into a panic.

She hustled back to her Las Vegas hotel room, struggling to breathe.

She’d tested positive for COVID, and immediately, her brain sped into overdrive. Maybe it’s a false positive, she hoped. But a second rapid test also come back positive. Then a PCR test confirmed their accuracy, and Samuelson, with her bags literally packed, crumpled to the floor. She curled up in a ball. And with every last ounce of emotional energy she had, she bawled her eyes out.

EVERETT, WASHINGTON - MAY 15: Katie Lou Samuelson #33 of the Seattle Storm looks on before the game against the Las Vegas Aces at Angel of the Winds Arena on May 15, 2021 in Everett, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
EVERETT, WASHINGTON - MAY 15: Katie Lou Samuelson #33 of the Seattle Storm looks on before the game against the Las Vegas Aces at Angel of the Winds Arena on May 15, 2021 in Everett, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

'Taking it away was just devastating'

Until that fateful Saturday, USA Basketball training camp had been everything Samuelson imagined. She and her 3x3 teammates had put together three strong practices in Vegas. On an off day, they’d gotten shots up. On all four days, COVID tests had come back negative. They felt comfortable; not quite invincible, but close. They’d taken every last precaution to guarantee their trip to Tokyo. They’d gotten vaccinated. They’d embraced strict protocols. They’d shuttled between gym and hotel, gym and hotel, and just about nowhere else.

Then, on the fifth day, after the fourth practice, a USAB staffer told Samuelson to hurry back to her hotel room and wait. There's no way, she thought. Her heart started racing.

Her heartbreak then unraveled in stages. She submitted a second sample for rapid testing. She clung to optimism. She felt soreness in her throat, but, no, she told herself, stop being paranoid. Perhaps it’s the flu.

Then came the second positive; and the instructions for isolation; and the realization.

She packed anyway, but then confirmation arrived. “I just curled up on the floor, crying,” Samuelson says. “Devastated.” Alone. Tears flooded her cheeks. She gasped for breath, and felt the world crashing down on top of her.

She called her boyfriend, and later her sister and mom. They were devastated too. They tried to help. They couldn’t. At times, they just sat there, connected by phone, in silence.

“I felt like everything that I'd done was for absolutely nothing,” Samuelson says.

She felt angry, but didn’t know where to direct her anger. Had she done something wrong? Had somebody else ripped the Olympics from her? She searched for blame. She snapped at her mom a couple times. How? she wondered. Why?

She worried, and questioned everything, and couldn’t find answers. The Olympics, of course, lingered in her brain.

“I really thought I was going,” she says. “Taking it away was just devastating.”

Escaping the powerlessness

For five days, Samuelson confronted all of these feelings while cooped up in a hotel room. She stared at one screen, then the next, then a wall. She lay in bed. She had a fever. She slept as much as she could. “Because my body hurt.”

She perused social media. She had nothing else to do. But what she saw on Twitter and Instagram was triggering. Reminders of the Olympics. Reminders of what she was missing, of what she’d lost. Everywhere.

She thought about how she’d rather have gotten injured, because injuries are an accepted part of sports. This, on the other hand, was unlike anything she’d ever experienced, “just so out of my control.”

She felt powerless. Coming to terms with that took time, and heart-to-hearts with loved ones, and conversations with a therapist.

Initially, she was upset, and upset that she was upset, bothered by her visceral reactions. She allowed her emotions to spiral. What she learned, gradually, from her therapist was the importance of allowing herself to feel. What she’d just gone through was trauma. Trauma required grief. Samuelson had to accept that grieving was OK. That trying to rush past it was unnatural and unnecessary.

She also learned to reframe the experience. For days, her mind stayed stuck on what COVID had taken: the Olympics; a post-Games vacation; a summer of happiness. But of course, focusing on that only compounded disappointment. She learned to shift focus from what she wasn’t doing to what she could do, to how she could better herself. She got off screens, and worked on breathing and yoga.

While confined to the hotel room, she binged Manifest on Netflix. After five days, her dad drove to Vegas, dropped off a car and flew home. Samuelson took the car back home to finish her isolation in a more comfortable setting. Her fever eased. She stayed up late or woke up early to watch her 3x3 teammates. She communicated with them sporadically — the time difference made it tough — and celebrated when they won gold.

And after a while, she began to accept that what had befallen her was “not my fault, it's nobody's fault, there's nothing I could've done differently.”

She is, 2 1/2 weeks later, doing better, physically and mentally. She’s working herself back into basketball shape. She spoke with Yahoo Sports from the passenger seat of a car post-workout. She hopes to be ready when the WNBA season resumes Aug. 16.

And although the heartbreak of last month hasn’t completely disappeared, it no longer consumes her.

A few years ago, she realizes, it would have. “This probably would've put me in a really, really dark place,” she says. For a while, especially in college, Samuelson had resisted therapy, and instead confronted depression and anxiety on her own.

But in 2019, she finally sought help from mental health professionals, and she’s glad she did. She began to set her feelings free. “I feel able to do that now without needing to wait ’til my complete breaking point,” she says.

And so, in a way, after this ordeal she wouldn’t wish upon anybody, she feels happy. Or at least proud of how she coped with it. Thankful for the friends and family who “saw the lowest of lows,” and helped her work through them. And proud of the personal growth that allowed her to grieve and then stabilize.

“I've come a long way,” she says, “in being able to still function and see the other side of things.”

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