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Gymnasts chalking up their hands and feet is a staple of the sport; it may also help keep COVID-19 at bay

British study shows substance actually reduces the number of infectious particles

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abby Paulson chalks her feet prior to her routine on the beam as the University of Utah fifth-ranked gymnastics team hosts No. 12 University of Kentucky during its home opener, Jan. 3, 2020, at the Huntsman Center.

The area around the chalk box is almost sacred space to gymnasts. The action of chalking up is so habitual, gymnasts use it as part of their essential preparation. It’s when they think about their routines ahead, relax and block everything else out.

“It’s a ritual that all our athletes have,” Utah coach Tom Farden said.

It turns out the ritual doesn’t just calm the gymnasts, it might help keep them safe, too.

According to research by scientists at De Montfort University Leicester in England, climbing chalk doesn’t transmit the virus, it also reduces the number of infectious particles.

The scientists dusted plastic surfaces with different chalks, including magnesium carbonate and calcium carbonate, then added droplets of a coronavirus called HCoV-OC43, which is similar to the variant that causes COVID-19. The results showed that within one minute of the virus coming into contact with the chalk, the number of infectious particles in is reduced by more than 99 percent.

The scientists’ conclusion was the chalk powder inactivated the infectivity of the virus so it was unlikely to harbor coronaviruses.

NO. 4 UTAH VS. WASHINGTON

At the Huntsman Center

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV: ESPNU

So what does the study mean for gymnasts, climbers, weight lifters and others that use chalk? That all those fine particles might not only be something to disregard in transmitting the virus, but might also be helpful.

If nothing else, it should alleviate fears that breathing in someone else’s chalk might not be ideal, but it might not make one sick.

For Farden, the study is a bit of welcome news as he tries to keep his team healthy. After all, he and his gymnasts are often covered in a fine chalky film on a daily basis.

“There is so much on you, because you are using it on every event,” Farden said. “It’s just something that is part of gymnastics.”

The Utes, like teams all across the country, are still following strict protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing. They are also disinfecting surfaces between rotations and after warmups.

Because there isn’t much contact between the athletes, gymnastics has been designated as a low risk sport by the NCAA in terms of the virus. However, the gymnasts are still vulnerable at times since they can’t wear their masks when they compete.

“Our approach has been thoughtful,” Farden said. “We are trying to keep them as safe as we can.”

Utah sophomore Maile O’Keefe said the study did make the Utes feel somewhat safer, knowing their chalk box might give them a little protection.

“Everyone has their routine of what they do,” she said. “You spray, wipe the chalk, powder, then re-chalk. We are all convinced that we have gotten so much chalk into our lungs we are all immune.”

While that might be a stretch, at least O’Keefe doesn’t have to worry about the chalk boxes being removed out of precautionary measures. She can’t imagine competing without it.

“At my gym, I was almost three years old when I saw the chalk around,” she said. “I wanted to wash my hands in chalk. I feel like I’ve been playing in it since I was three.”

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