The sports stars who joined the front line against coronavirus - World Health Day 2021

For World Health Day 2021, we feature Olympians Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, Paula Pareto, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Joyce Sombroek, plus other athletes confronting the Coronavirus pandemic head-on.
By James Pratt

Healthcare workers are among those who have been working tirelessly over the past year, to battle Covid-19 and help keep us safe.

They all deserve praise, and for World Health Day 2021, on 7th April, we take a look at some of the athletes who have been on the frontlines of the fight with the coronavirus, including multiple Olympic champions.

Some have combined medical studies or a day job as a key worker with their sporting careers as they train for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021. Others have switched to health work full time, bringing tributes from many, including IOC President Thomas Bach.

Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke - Former footballer on the Covid frontline

Dr. Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke has been on the frontline throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her life as a medical doctor is a world away from her former career as a defender for the USWNT, winning Olympic football gold at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games for Team USA.

Paula Pareto - Judo champ to Doctor in Argentina

Argentina's reigning Olympic -48kg judo champion Paula Pareto is one of those who joined the effort to fight COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic.

After spending two weeks in self-isolation following the Yekaterinburg Grand Slam when the coronavirus hit in early 2020, Pareto returned to the San Isidro Hospital just north of Buenos Aires where she works as an orthopaedic doctor.

She quoted Winston Churchill in her first post while back at work, saying: "We are the masters of our fate. The task which has been set us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause and an unconquerable willpower, victory will be within our grasp."

Pareto also shared her home workouts with Olympic Channel, as she balanced her medical career with training for her aim of winning a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.

Dutch goalie Sambroek training to handle Covid shots

Former Dutch hockey goalie Joyce Sombroek, a gold medallist at London 2012 and silver medallist at Rio 2016, has been helping the effort in her homeland.

One of the most successful goalkeepers in history, Sombroek was forced to retire after Rio due to recurring hip problems.

After that, she completed her medical studies at Amsterdam's Vrjie Universiteit and worked in departments including Emergency Rooms before beginning her training as a GP.

Sambroek recently posted on social media: "My first year of GP training is over. A year that I will not soon forget, not only because of covid-19 but especially also because of my nice colleagues and patients!"

Jo Brigden-Jones - the paddling paramedic in Australia

Jo Brigden-Jones found out just before the pandemic hit that she would be going to her second Olympic Games.

The Australian sprint kayaker competed at London 2012 but narrowly missed out on Rio 2016.

After the disappointment of Rio, she started working full time in her "dream career" as a paramedic for NSW Ambulances and has since combined this with training, motivational speaking, and running her own cake baking business.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Brigden-Jones told ABC Grandstand that she had been instructed to leave Sydney for the Gold Coast for intensive training ahead of Tokyo 2020.

But the postponement of the Games meant that move was put on hold, and she returned to work as a paramedic where she helped transport people suffering from Coronavirus.

One year on, she's back on the water and getting back to full fitness with the rest of the Australia team in preparation for the Olympics in 2021.

From world championship disappointment to the nursing wards for Vicky Wright

Two-time Scottish curling champion Vicky Wright had been due to compete in Canada at the World Curling Championships in March 2020. Two days before the event was scheduled to begin, with the curlers having already arrived in Prince George, Canada, it was postponed due to the coronavirus.

Wright, who now plays lead in Sochi 2014 bronze medallist Eve Muirhead's rink, returned home and went back to nursing.

The 27-year-old had switched to curling full-time in July 2019 in order to focus on Beijing 2022, but she was able to continue working occasionally at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital near Falkirk.

She told British Curling, "Both the NHS and British Curling enabled me to do one shift a week throughout this season. It was something I really enjoyed and I didn’t want to lose my skills and it was good to have something else other than just curling, it really kept me grounded.

"Being a nurse has always given me a good perspective on life and kept my focus on what is important."

Switching from Tokyo Paralympic preparations to front line doctor - Kim Daybell

Two-time Paralympian Kim Daybell has also been assisting the British National Health Service (NHS) in its time of need.

The 27-year-old was born with Poland's Syndrome which means he has next to no chest muscles on one side of his body, but that has not stopped him pursuing his love of table tennis and medicine.

He completed his medicine degree at the University of Leeds in 2018 and has since worked part-time as a junior doctor at the Whittington Hospital in North London.

He was due to start training full-time for Tokyo 2020 when the pandemic hit, and the postponement of the Paralympic Games to 2021 meant a change of plan for Daybell.

He told British Para Table Tennis, "One of the things that people seem to be struggling with is that feeling of powerlessness where they can’t do anything. I’m lucky to have the skill-set to help fight what is going on and that is a positive that I’m taking."

Silvia Meseguer on helping out at a field hospital after quitting internationals

Atletico Madrid vice-captain Silvia Meseguer was one of those who volunteered to help in the field hospital set up in the IFEMA exhibition complex in Spain's capital.

Meseguer quit international football in 2019 to focus on completing medical school.

She told Atletico Madrid's official website, "Seeing the situation we are experiencing, I think anything we can contribute right now is important. I still don't have a medical degree because I have yet to finish my final project, but if they need help from students, of course I will."

With the season back underway, Meseguer is continuing her education in between playing games for her club, and recently posted pictures on social media of her studying on the train to an away game.

From the ice to the boardroom to emergency rooms for Hayley Wickenheiser

Four-time Olympic ice hockey gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser retired from the sport in 2017 to go to medical school.

The 41-year-old combined her final year of studies at the University of Calgary with being the Toronto Maple Leafs' Assistant Director of Player Development and a member of the IOC Athletes' Commission.

When the pandemic hit, Wickenheiser was helping patients in hospital emergency rooms in and around Toronto.

A year on, she's also been putting her expertise to good use by offering advice and motivation on social media.

Summer Olympian, Winter Olympian, Doctor - Jana Pittman is a triple threat

Two-time 400m hurdles world champion Jana Pittman qualified as a doctor shortly before Covid-19 hit.

Pittman, the only Australian woman to appear in both Summer and Winter Olympic Games (she competed in bobsleigh at Sochi 2014), had her first day on shift in January 2020 and gave this advice to Australians along with her daughter Emily.

Since then, Pittman gave birth to her fourth child at the end of 2020, and is now studying a PhD in medicine too!