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‘I Woke Up And Felt My Ribs Were Broken’

Many unexpected things happened this year for triathlete Grainne Kelly but one she really wants to shake is doing the ‘butt shuffle’ on her runs.

The top-level athlete was stricken with Covid-19 in September and is still working back to fitness. She is learning how to get fit instead of being fit and says the experience has been an eye-opener.

Research at the University of Limerick shows Kelly is not alone. Dr Clodagh Butler says: “There is no empirical research out there to suggest anyone is immune to this virus. Athletes are absolutely just as susceptible to COVID. There is no sport that is immune to this.

“The guidelines and health promotion information are out there, being spread by the organisations themselves. It is important everyone supports one another.”

The research team have been working with athletes since the start of the pandemic.

Dr Butler said they can already see patterns, explaining: “Preliminary analysis shows the percentage of athletes who tested positive for COVID19 was the same as the national rate of that time, just under 2%.  A second time point on a smaller sample showed a slight increase of athletes testing positive.”

Now they are looking at how athletes’ health will fare back training and competing together. She said health messages should be targeted, using for example Instagram and TikTok to reach younger athletes rather than Twitter.

She warned: “As time goes on we are unsure yet just how much of the information is getting across to everyone and if there is information fatigue.”

Grainne Kelly was feeling sure of her health when the pandemic hit. She doesn’t smoke or drink, no underlying health conditions. Her only concern was for her mother. But bad luck does not discriminate it seems.

She took a Top 5 finish at the National Aquathlon Championships in September. But just a few weeks later on the 29th, she felt unusually chilly while swimming. Later that day she got a call from a close friend who was exposed to the virus at work. It only took hours before she felt worse.

“People were saying to me ‘you are being dramatic’ and I was like ‘no,  I have never felt back pain like this ever’. You don’t realise how sore it was until it goes, you are completely wiped,” she says.

The infection seemed to be passing after a week and a half but returned in force on Day 12. She says: “I woke up and I felt my ribs were broken, I could not hold my breath. So if I moved or even turned I was in agony, it was like I had been in an accident.”

A hospital doctor found Kelly was still ill with Covid-19. Kelly’s symptoms included severe rib and back pain. As an athlete she is used to over-coming injuries or disappointment, this put her skills to the test.

“I was so shocked, it took me so off-guard. I just sat there completely bewildered. I’d been resting and eating as much as I could. Back to square one. They don’t know why it happened, that is frightening to hear,” she says.

It was early November before she was able to look at an adapted training schedule. 

Back on her bike but slowly. Top running times of around 4.30/km down to over seven – that’s the butt shuffle right there. And to her horror even at this slower pace, her heart-rate remained stubbornly high at over 150 beats per minute.

Swimming was out during Level 5 restrictions.

But she is not discouraged, and says every week she sees improvements: “Doing triathlons for females you only come into your peak in your 30s. I’m 31, I have not peaked or even nearly reached my potential now.” 

Her work as an injury therapist has also been closed for much for the year, but she says: “I am being positive, I am grateful for having sport and having that passion for it. I am very fortunate that I found this space.”

Follow Grainne Kelly on her triathlon journey @tri_grainne

Niamh Griffin (IG: @realgirlsport)

Niamh Griffin is a sports journalist who previously competed in MuayThai. Niamh has a huge passion for sports and is keen share the stories of women in sport to inspire the future generation. Instagram: @realgirlsport

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