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These Athletes Made It All The Way To The Olympics Only To End Up In Isolation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To get to the Tokyo Olympics, athletes train for years for a few moments on the global stage. Well, these Olympic Games have one challenge competitors can't control - COVID-19. NPR's Leila Fadel reports at least 23 athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus. That means isolation and shattered Olympic dreams.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On Tuesday, Reshmie Oogink was supposed to shine in taekwondo, her second Olympics representing the Netherlands. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESHMIE OOGINK: Hey, guys. Welcome. Yesterday, I tested positive for COVID.

FADEL: The news came days before her match. She wasn't sick, but she was out of the Olympics. Instead of flying home to seek solace, she's in a Tokyo hotel set up to isolate positive cases at the games. Oogink has been posting videos on Instagram to make her family laugh and to stop her mind from wandering somewhere dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OOGINK: I was about to participate in taekwondo, but now I'm participating in something else. May I present you the COVID Games?

FADEL: Each day she makes up an event with what she finds in her room, like the saliva throw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OOGINK: That's one.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

OOGINK: That's two.

FADEL: She tosses the plastic tube she gets to spit into for her coronavirus tests into her taekwondo helmet. Lonely, she even made a buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OOGINK: As you can see, I have a new friend called Bob. He was ready to fight.

FADEL: She literally made him by filling her taekwondo uniform with foam rollers, clothes, water bottles and toilet paper. It's kind of reminiscent of Wilson from the movie "Castaway," but Bob actually looks like a real person. On Instagram, she projects humor and grace in the face of devastation, calling herself a new inmate in Olympic jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OOGINK: Hi, guys. Welcome back - Day 2 of quarantine here in Tokyo.

FADEL: But when I reached her, she said she didn't have the energy to get on the phone. The isolation, she says, can break you. After years of rehabilitation for knee injuries, she qualified for the games in May. This was supposed to be her final competition. Instead, she's alone, watching others compete. It's painful, she says.

U.S. beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb lived the same fate. After testing negative twice before leaving for the games, he tested positive when he landed in Tokyo. Two men came to the baggage claim, whisked him off to a makeshift clinic, tested him again - positive - and he was off to the isolation facility that athletes call the quarantine hotel.

TAYLOR CRABB: It was, without a doubt, the hardest 10 days of my life, you know, obviously with the devastation of testing positive.

FADEL: But also, the days in his room alone.

CRABB: I had a window in my room, but they locked it. I didn't breathe fresh air for 10 days straight.

FADEL: It was the longest time he can remember ever going without touching a volleyball. The Hawaii native grew up on the sand in a volleyball family. From isolation, he talked to the team and coach before each match, strategizing and watched the games alone.

CRABB: It's the weirdest feeling when I see them playing. You know, 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.

FADEL: Yesterday, he finally got home to Hawaii. His girlfriend and parents were waiting for him - a relief but also hard. He shouldn't have come back this early, he says. It should have been a celebration. The silver lining - the next Olympics is only three years away.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.