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Injuries weren’t the only concerns athletes dealt with this year

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - Injuries can put athletes out for months at a time but this year, they weren't the only thing they had to worry about as COVID added another aspect of stress to their lives.

With the WIAA State Basketball Tournaments coming to La Crosse, Mayo Clinic Health System is providing medical support to athletes in order to prevent injury and provide immediate care to injured players. Paul Molling, D.O., vice chair of clinical practice at Mayo Clinic Health System said they are honored to be able to do so.

"This is an annual huge thing, particularly for us who are basketball fans," said Molling. "It is a great time for us in Wisconsin. It's kind of the kickoff to March Madness for all of us and when I look at March Madness I look at high school basketball girls and boys and then we roll right into the collegiate. It's just a great time of year."

He explained taking care of the athletes is their primary goal. They'll have athletic trainers on-site for each game along with a physician or two in case of injured players. With the year we have had, Molling said the tournament will put a smile on many faces.

"During this given year we all need inspiration and hope and this allows it," said Molling. "The La Crosse Center and the WIAA have a great plan put together and it's fantastic."

Although the athletes have now gotten to this point in their season, it wasn't without difficulty. Andrew Jagim, director of sports medicine research has worked on two different research studies involving how COVID-19 has affected athletes. One thing they looked at was how the shutdown impacted their training habits and opportunities.

"Because a lot of the schools and fitness centers and strength and conditioning facilities were going to be shut down, we had a feeling that was going to obviously impact the type of training they were going to be able to do and that's what we found is that a lot of athletes were self reporting that they almost cut in half the amount of training that they were doing. Specifically, a lot of the strength training type of activities and then obviously anything sport specific because they weren't able to get out on the court or field with their fellow athletes," said Jagim.

Not only was the concern for getting COVID there, so was injury after they were able to return.

"Before we even talk about them getting COVID, we have concerns of the type of training that is going to take place," explained Jagim. "If they aren't able to train and prepare themselves physically for the demands of their sport, A: performance is likely to suffer but then B: the risk of injury is likely to go up quite a bit as well."

Those injuries Jagim said would likely be soft tissue injuries like ruptures, strains, and pulled muscles where they just aren't used to that kind of exposure.

The second project he worked on focused more on collegiate athletes that came through their clinic to get screened and checked out in order to get cleared to play before their return to sports.

"We did a general physical exam like you would in any other type of setting, but then also more strategically, looking at any cardiac abnormalities to see if they were suffering from any secondary outcomes related to that infection of COVID, to see if their heart and lungs and things like that were impacted," explained Jagim.

Out of 170 athletes, he said only two of them had cardiac or heart-related issues. Both were for pericarditis, or inflammation of the lining of the heart, less severe than myocarditis, one of the major talked about after-effects of COVID.

"Based on what we saw that was relatively good indicating that there wasn't a high prevalence of severe cardiac complications," said Jagim.

He explained that a lot of athletes were reporting common symptoms like loss of taste and smell, fatigue, and chest pain. While they haven't fully looked at long-term effects, they still see some complaints of the same symptoms in those athletes who are working out at higher levels. They are symptoms that they will be watching for as they provide medical assistance at the WIAA state tournaments.

"It's definitely something on everyone's radar, especially our physicians. Dr. Erickson who will be there at more of the boy's games the second weekend. He was the one that did a lot of these assessments and exams for athletes at the collegiate level around us so he's definitely very familiar with what a lot of these signs and symptoms may look like," said Jagim.

Although it is on their radar, they don't anticipate for a lot of that to happen but they will be prepared for every scenario.

While many could have been physically impacted, Jagim said one of the biggest aspects that many athletes have been affected by is the mental aspect and the stress that the pandemic has caused.

"There is definitely a lot of added stress and anxiety and frustration that a lot of these athletes have been experiencing for the better part of a year now," said Jagim. "They will say how frustrating it is to train for an entire season or off-season and then maybe get up to the week of a game and then you find out last minute that something has been cancelled or they find out post-season competitions are cancelled or disrupted for whatever reason. It's really hard for them to take that in stride."

He explained that they are working with a group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester that is looking at the mental health side of COVID and how it is impacting high school aged athletes in that regard. The data will begin coming in this spring in order to further understand what they have gone through.

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Rylie Kyhn

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