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WNBA and coronavirus: How more than a dozen players coped and recovered

Chicago guard Sydney Colson, who tested positive for COVID-19 in late June, made her 2020 WNBA season debut on Aug. 4. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

No matter how long or how often she napped, Sydney Colson woke up exhausted, wanting only to go back to sleep. She was so nauseated, it was difficult to stand. When she was awake, she barely ate and couldn't taste anything. She dropped five pounds, a big loss for the lean 5-foot-8 Chicago Sky guard who tested positive for the coronavirus in late June.

"I still can't taste, but I've been scarfing food down and trying to gain some weight," Colson said, and then tried to make light of her sense of smell not returning yet, either.

"I'm telling my teammates if I stink or anything, just pull me to the side respectfully," she joked. "Don't embarrass me."

It's part of Colson's upbeat personality to make the best of a tough situation. Several of her WNBA peers have done the same. As college football and other NCAA fall sports are threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, the WNBA -- which began its season July 25 -- has thus far been successfully navigating it. The WNBA had two positive tests for COVID-19 during its initial four-day quarantine period at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, from July 6, when most players arrived, through July 10. Since then, the league has had zero positive tests among its 139 players who are in the bubble. And most of the players who've dealt with COVID-19 this year have made it back to the court. That process required at least two weeks quarantining, two consecutive negative tests and a cardiac assessment.

Colson, who made her season debut Aug. 4, is one of 13 WNBA players who have confirmed they've tested positive for COVID-19 this year. Two other players -- centers Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces and Theresa Plaisance of the Connecticut Sun -- believe they contracted the virus while playing in China over the winter, although they weren't tested for it then.

Of these 15 players, two are not competing this WNBA season: Cambage and New York Liberty guard Asia Durr, who got medical exemptions. Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler still hopes to play but is not yet in the WNBA's bubble. The other 12 players are all there; Connecticut guard Briann January is the most recent to make her season debut. She played nearly 16 minutes and had three assists Wednesday in a victory against the Dallas Wings.

Indiana forward Lauren Cox tested positive in early July. She has been a Type 1 diabetic since age 7, but said it was not a complicating factor in dealing with the coronavirus. The rookie never considered skipping this season, and she was eager to get to Florida once she got past her symptoms and went through protocol.

"I hadn't played in a basketball game since early March," said Cox, the No. 3 draft pick who made her WNBA debut Aug. 5 and got her first start Aug. 9. "I was honestly just excited that we were having a season."

Cox dealt with coughing and congestion from COVID-19, but said the loss of taste bothered her the most.

"You lose the enjoyment of eating," she said. "Although it was probably the healthiest that I've ever eaten in my life. I had some vegetables that I would never touch if I could taste them."

While all the WNBA players who've returned so far have said they think they are back to normal or getting there, their experiences will be part of the data that will continue to be studied regarding COVID-19's long-term and short-term effects on athletes.

"We're still so early in the process," ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. "We're still in the information-gathering stage, including the cardiac manifestations.

"And let's just say you lost even 5% of your lung capacity. Is that going to be a problem? Will it show up when you play? Will you even know? They might still function the same because they were an elite athlete to begin with."

By playing at a single site, the WNBA hoped to create a bubble and keep out the pandemic. The WNBA's protocol required a week of self-quarantining and three negative tests for coronavirus before arrival at the bubble, and then four days of quarantining and continued negative tests once there.

"It wasn't an easy process," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. "But we're confident with the extensive health and safety protocols in place, and a process for quickly triaging issues as they arise on-site."

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Sky's Dolson says entire family had COVID-19

Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson says her entire family was diagnosed with COVID-19 and her mother had to be admitted to the hospital.

It has worked so far. As mentioned, only two players -- Kalani Brown and Glory Johnson of the Atlanta Dream -- tested positive after arrival in the bubble during the initial quarantine period July 6-10. Both then had to quarantine for a couple of weeks at a hotel off-site before returning to IMG.

Brown dealt with headaches, body aches, fatigue and shortness of breath. She said the mental aspect of her lengthy quarantine was as challenging as the illness, but coach Nicki Collen boosted her spirits.

"When you're in those four walls, you think about a lot of things," Brown said. "You're feeling bad; you're wondering, 'How am I going to help the team?' I got discouraged, but my coach called me, let me know everything was going to be OK."

Brown made her season debut Monday with 13 points and four rebounds in just under 11 minutes of action.

"I felt good; I lasted longer than I thought," Brown said.

Johnson was asymptomatic throughout her quarantine. Another Dream player, Courtney Williams, New York forward Megan Walker and Connecticut guard Natisha Hiedeman tested positive before they came to the bubble and also were asymptomatic. Williams and Johnson both missed the Dream's first two games, debuting July 31. Walker missed one game for the Liberty, while Hiedeman has played every game for the Sun.

Johnson mostly passed the day on FaceTime with family, including her 4-year-old twin daughters. She wasn't allowed to do something as simple as push-ups because of the coronavirus' potential impact on the heart, even for those not displaying symptoms. That's why the cardiac assessment is mandatory.

As Johnson said in a video she posted on Instagram, "Although I didn't have the health scare that many others had, this experience was a shocking reminder of how valuable life is."

January said she had one "very tough week" of extreme fatigue, congestion, body aches and headaches.

"I made it through, and after that my symptoms pretty much went away," said January, who said her senses of taste and smell returned shortly before she came to the bubble. "But once I stopped feeling symptoms, I had to wait two weeks for my cardiac test. It was a lot of testing, and a lot of waiting for my body to recover."

Her teammate Plaisance has had a challenging last several months. In mid-December while playing in China, she became ill with symptoms that match what we know now about coronavirus, including high fever, headaches, vomiting and shortness of breath. After hospital visits and IV treatment, she kept playing, but felt miserable.

"I could definitely tell a difference in my lung capacity," said Plaisance, a 6-5 center. "I didn't understand why my lungs were feeling that way. I'm used to playing a 40-minute game in China, and my lungs couldn't keep up."

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WNBA player fought corona-like virus while in China

Connecticut Sun player Theresa Plaisance opens up about the unknown virus she fought while playing basketball in China, months before the coronavirus outbreak.

When she came back to the United States in January, she first heard of COVID-19 and now is almost certain that's what she had. Plaisance then dealt with back issues that delayed her season debut, but she began playing on Aug. 1. She feels she's past the worst of her lung issues now.

The Aces' Cambage also was hospitalized in China in December but wasn't tested for COVID-19. Los Angeles guard Sydney Wiese played overseas in Spain, and in April became the first WNBA player to confirm a positive test.

Later that month, Chicago center Stefanie Dolson confirmed she had tested positive, as had her parents and brother. She played overseas in China during the winter, but left in January and didn't become ill until March. Wiese and Dolson both had recovered well before the WNBA season.

Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham thinks she might have contracted the virus twice, although medical experts are still unsure if that's possible. It might be the re-emergence of the same illness.

Cunningham was first ill in March -- losing taste and smell, and having headaches -- after she returned to the United States from playing in Australia. She wasn't tested then, but did self-quarantine. In June, after working out in a gym in Missouri where she thought she was taking enough precautions, she began experiencing different symptoms, including shortness of breath, fatigue and sore throat. She tested positive on June 18.

After 32 days of quarantining at home and then at IMG on arrival in mid-July, she still played in the Mercury's opener July 25, and has appeared in every game for Phoenix.

"All that time, I couldn't do anything," Cunningham said of the quarantine period. "It was a struggle; breathing was weird. But I'm young, I'm healthy now, so I can get back in shape."

For the Liberty's Durr, COVID-19 is costing her a valuable season of development in her young career. The No. 2 draft pick in 2019 out of Louisville, she averaged 9.7 points and was limited to 18 games as a rookie because of a hip injury that required surgery. She was looking forward to making bigger strides in 2020 under a new coach in Walt Hopkins.

But she tested positive on June 8, before the WNBA's season was announced, and experienced severe enough symptoms to keep her from playing this summer. In a statement, she called her battle against the coronavirus, "complicated and arduous."

Phoenix forward Jessica Breland (who was treated for cancer in 2009-10 while in college at North Carolina) and Washington center Tina Charles (who contracted extrinsic asthma while playing in China in 2016) also received medical exemptions based on being high risk if they were to contract COVID-19. Washington forward/guard Elena Delle Donne was denied an exemption despite having had Lyme disease, but she's being paid while she rehabs after back surgery.

Among staff, Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes, who battled cancer last year, and Los Angeles Sparks assistant Fred Williams also were both assessed as high risk and are working remotely from home.

All will be eager to return to the WNBA next year, if circumstances allow.

For the WNBA players who've battled COVID-19 this year and are still able to play, they're thankful.

"Life in the bubble, it's pretty good," Cox said. "I love the game of basketball, and I wanted to play this season. I wanted to get the experience as a rookie, to see where I'm at as far as talent-wise. Nothing was going to stop me from playing this season."