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BYU swimmer spent Olympics in ‘COVID jail’ despite never testing positive for the coronavirus

For 12 days, Josue Dominguez was unable to leave his room except to compete

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez will be the only male swimming for the Dominican Republic at the Olympics in Tokyo. Dominguez was photographed at BYU in Provo on Thursday, July 8, 2021.

Josue Dominguez was negative.

Again and again and again and again. Through 15 saliva tests and nearly 10 nose-violating PCR swabs, not once did the BYU swimmer test positive for COVID-19.

Yet, he couldn’t go to the dining hall. He couldn’t train in a gym or a pool. He couldn’t even leave his room.

For 12 days, Dominguez, who has been vaccinated against COVID since March, was under house arrest. Not because he had the coronavirus, but because someone a few seats away from him on his flight to Japan did.

Dominguez was considered to be “in close contact” with a COVID case, which meant he and a few other athletes seated around him, mostly representing South and Central American countries, had to be placed in quarantine. He thought it would be just for a day or two. But then it became a week. Then almost two.

Each of the daily spit tests and frequent nose swabs brought Dominguez hope — and disappointment.

“Each time I feel like, ‘Oh, this is it!’” he said recently from the confines of his single room in the Olympic Village. “But right now, at this point, it’s like, if they let me out, mostly I’d just be excited for me to be able to walk around the village and visit all the cool places that are here. All my training has been lost already. So there isn’t anything else that I can do to get it back at this point.”

At that time, the Dominican Republic’s lone male swimmer had raced one of his two events, the 100-meter breaststroke. He placed seventh in his heat in 1 minute, 1.86 seconds, about a second off his personal best and the 39th best time overall.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez will be the only male swimming for the Dominican Republic at the Olympics in Tokyo. Dominguez was photographed at BYU in Provo on Thursday, July 8, 2021.

Considering he’d only been allowed in a pool twice since he arrived in Tokyo a week earlier, he felt that wasn’t too disappointing.

“I didn’t worry at all about my event, I was just having fun,” said Dominguez, who lives in Santiago when not at BYU. “I was listening to music, just like getting myself in a more happy mood to go swim. I was kind of trying to be more happy than being focused because at that point I was like, ‘A best time is not going to happen.’”

His second and final race, a 200 breast qualifier, took place Tuesday. Out of the 40 total entrants, only the five swimmers he beat while taking third (2:17.34) in his heat had slower times.

Even before he got caught in quarantine limbo, he didn’t expect to end up on the medal stand. Though he had the best times and performance of any male swimmer from the Dominican Republic this year, which earned him the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, his personal bests didn’t meet the “A” standard needed for automatic qualification to the Games. His personal record in the 200 backstroke — which he set back in 2014 when he was 18 — was still six seconds off the Olympic-record and gold-medal winning time swam by Australia’s Izaac Stubblety-Cook in Tokyo on Wednesday night.

He didn’t come to Tokyo expecting to medal.

By the end, he just wanted out of his room.

‘WE STARTED TO FREAK OUT’

Dominguez was confused.

Dominguez expected to have to abide by strict rules and harsh penalties as an Olympian. Considering the Tokyo Games are the first Olympics ever held in a pandemic. Considering they had become hugely unpopular with the Japanese people who have concerns about bringing thousands of foreigners to their shores as virus cases surge in the country. Considering a cloud of uncertainty over whether the event would be canceled loomed over the Games even after the torch had been lit.

(Felipe Dana | AP) Jacob Gibb, right, of the United States, takes a shot as Enrico Rossi, of Italy, defends during a men's beach volleyball match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo.

But he found himself in a stranger situation than he’d ever imagined.

And he’s not the only otherwise healthy Olympic athlete, coach or staff sentenced to “COVID jail” — the derisive name for quarantine — for close contact. Bountiful native Jake Gibb was moved into isolation 36 hours after his new beach volleyball partner arrived because Gibb had what was considered close contact with his former partner, Taylor Crabb, the first American athlete to test positive for COVID while in Tokyo. Team USA women’s volleyball’s offensive coordinator, Erin Virtue, meanwhile, watched her team’s first match from her laptop in her hotel room because she also was flagged for having close contact during her flight to the Games.

Close contact on an airplane, according to Japanese regulations, is anyone sitting within two rows — front, back or across the plane — of the infected passenger.

Still, when the head coach at the PanAm Sport training camp in Tachikawa, Japan — where Dominguez was getting acclimated for the Games — told him he had been in close contact with a COVID case while on the plane, Dominguez didn’t understand. He had arrived Tuesday. By the time he was given the bad news on Saturday, he’d spent almost the entire week swimming, living and hanging out with other members of the camp. He’d also been tested daily.

Dominguez questioned the timing of the quarantine and the reasoning behind it. But in a pattern that would repeat itself often as he was shuffled through varying stages of limbo, he received no concrete explanation.

“That has been one of the problems I’ve had here,” he said. “I have so many questions and most of the time, they don’t give me — it’s not exactly the answer that I’m looking for, but at least I need some reason behind the answers. And they don’t give me any of that.”

He and a few other swimmers were isolated in a hotel and tested. Two days later, on Monday, they were allowed to use the pool while cordoned off from the other swimmers. That night, as scheduled, the group broke camp and moved to Tokyo. Instead of the Olympic Village, the swimmers in isolation again were sent to a hotel. They expected it would be for just one more day. That would mark a week since they were exposed, which would mean they were highly unlikely to still be spreaders of the virus.

“Then they told us that we were not going to be allowed to swim” in our races, Dominguez said. “And that’s when we started to freak out.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez will be the only male swimming for the Dominican Republic at the Olympics in Tokyo. Dominguez was photographed at BYU in Provo on Thursday, July 8, 2021.

Dominguez said the Dominican Republic has advocates for its athletes at the Olympics, and its doctors were able to arrange for him to be able to compete. They also secured a room for him in the Village, which was supposed to give him easier access to a pool.

It did not.

“They told us we were not allowed to go to the pool,” he said. “We were not allowed to get out of our rooms at all.”

He filled his days playing Homescapes and Call of Duty Mobile on his phone, watching shows and movies on Netflix, journaling about his latest restrictions and talking to his family. Sometimes he’d go out to enjoy the view from his balcony, but Tokyo’s hot and humid summer weather would quickly chase him back in.

For food, he had to text a coach to bring him something from the Athletes Village dining hall, infamous for its thousands of dishes from all over the world.

Not until race day did he finally come down from the tower.

Dominguez and a competitor from Honduras could not take the athletes’ bus and instead were required to take a separate shuttle. They took a PCR test before leaving the village and were required to receive a negative result before they could enter the Tokyo Aquatic Centre.

Once inside, though, all restrictions were off. They could go where they wanted and interact with whomever they pleased. Their saga appeared to be over.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. To their surprise, they were put back in isolation, but not until after they took their third PCR test in a span of 24 hours. Then, they were told they’d have to stay there until they raced again.

BREAKING OUT

Josue Dominguez is trying to be positive.

This isn’t the Olympic experience he wanted, but it’s the one he got.

“I’m not going to lie: Yeah, I would love to have been able to swim with my best shape and my best conditions,” he said. “But if I live under that thought, it’s going to make everything else worse. So, I try just to push it away and not think about that so much.”

Dominguez said he’s actually applying something he learned at BYU — in a chemistry class, no less — to keep his trials in perspective.

The way he tells it, the BYU class had a lab in which students were expected to conduct their experiments. The lab was only open at certain times, so even if he realized he’d miscalculated, he couldn’t go back and fix his mistakes. He just had to wait until the lab opened up again and see what he’d gotten.

It, much like the entirety of the pandemic itself, was a lesson in letting go of things beyond his control.

“I was talking to my coaches,” he said, “and everything that has happened in the last year and a half kind of prepared me emotionally, mentally and physically for this that is happening now.”

So, rather than dwell on the frustrations, Dominguez is trying to think of himself as lucky that he’ll have this tale to tell his friends and, some day, his children and grandchildren. He reminds himself that what matters is that he can call himself an Olympian. And, he’s started plotting his path to the next Summer Games, in Paris in 2024, where maybe he’ll have a more enjoyable experience.

That’s a lot easier to imagine now. After his final race, he did, indeed, get sprung from isolation. Before his flight home Sunday, he was busy watching races at the aquatics center, visiting shops in the village, playing games with friends and sampling a little of everything at the dining hall as well as the Japanese restaurant on site.

“It feels like I’m free right now,” he said.

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