Olympics-COVID casts long shadow over New Zealand paddler Jones

By Thomson Reuters Mar 15, 2024 | 1:31 AM

By Ian Ransom

(Reuters) – The Paris Olympics will be free of the strict COVID-19 restrictions that overshadowed the Tokyo and Beijing Games but New Zealand canoe slalom trailblazer Luuka Jones might be forgiven for taking extra precautions with her health.

The 35-year-old’s ambitions of reaching a fifth Olympics once seemed fanciful as she spent more than a year recovering after being diagnosed with long COVID in early-2022.

Never mind hurtling down a white-water course in pursuit of medals – there were periods when everyday tasks would induce a fatigue that would put Jones on her back for the rest of a day.

“I’d get really tired from just going out and mowing the lawn or going for a walk,” she told Reuters in an interview.

“I’d have to go to bed afterwards because I was so tired and yeah, I basically had to go down to doing three activities a week.”

It was not until last October that Jones felt fully free of COVID’s grip, a month that coincided with her World Cup gold medal in kayak cross at the same Vaires-sur-Marne venue hosting the Olympic canoeing from July 27.

The win gave Jones belief she can be a major contender at Paris, eight years after taking her nation’s first Olympic canoeing medal with silver in the K1 category at the Rio Games.

She will become the third New Zealand woman to compete at five Games, joining shot put icon Valerie Adams and former Olympic champion sailor Barbara Kendall.

“Two incredible women athletes that I’ve looked up to my entire career. To match them in terms of the number of Games is such a privilege,” she said.


Jones has been at every Games since her debut as a teenager at Beijing 2008 but takes nothing for granted. Long COVID provided multiple reminders of how quickly things can unravel.

Her recovery was laden with setbacks.

She thought she was over the worst after a couple of months’ rest at home in 2022 but “almost fell off a cliff” with fatigue after heading overseas for a training block.

She spent much of the New Zealand winter that year in a hyperbaric chamber and later suffered a neck injury and a string of illnesses that brought her to the brink of quitting.

“As I said to my fiance, every time I was coming back, ‘Is this something I want to do? I just don’t feel good and I’m not back at that level’,” said Jones.

“There was always that doubt whether I could return to the top of the sport and whether I had more to give mentally and physically.”

A number of high-profile athletes have also battled long COVID, including British Tour de France winner Chris Froome and American ice hockey player Jonathan Toews.

Jones said managing her illness was a matter of “trial and error” and seeking advice from fellow athletes and a local physiologist in New Zealand with experience in the condition.

Now back in the grind of being a high-performance athlete, she said long COVID had helped make her more resilient for her final Olympic tilt at a medal — but it had also left a psychological mark.

“I go about my life normally but there is this fear in the back of my mind of, ‘What if I get it again? What if it hits me hard?'” she said.

“But I guess you just don’t know where you can get (COVID) from or when it’s going to hit.

“In terms of my training, I’m very self-aware. Like I guess I’ve learned to read my body really well and I know if I’m doing too much.”

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)