'I started imagining every small thing to be Coronavirus' - Vinesh Phogat on battling Covid-19

File photo: Vinesh Phogat training at the SAI gymnasium in Lucknow. SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Vinesh Phogat first tested positive for the COVID-19 virus last month, she has heard all sorts of opinions -- scientific and otherwise -- on what to expect of the illness. "My mother is certain that someone has put a buri nazar (evil eye) on me. She wanted to do something to remove that," she says. Her coach Woller Akos, under whose training the 26-year old won a bronze medal at last year's World Championships, is extremely concerned as well. "He thinks that the coronavirus will affect my brain and memory. The problem is that he's in Hungary, so he doesn't really know what's happening on the ground here. So he believes every rumour he hears. He is sure everything is collapsing here. He asks me for updates everyday. When I told him I had now had a negative test, he wanted to see the report and analyse it."

While there's no evidence that the virus causes memory loss, as Akos fears, there are other issues that athletes definitely have to consider as they return to training.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal about athletes and the coronavirus, suggested that the usual return-to-play criteria for sick athletes probably do not apply to someone who has been infected with the coronavirus. While the usual practice for athletes recovering from respiratory conditions is to resume training if symptoms are confined above the neck, the study advised athletes who have tested positive for the coronavirus or suspect they might be positive, to rest -- and avoid exercise -- for at least 10 days from the point they first feel symptoms. Then, assuming their illness stays mild, they should continue to rest for another week, even after symptoms resolve.

Vinesh is not the only athlete who will have to figure out the correct process for returning to the training routine of an elite athlete. Badminton doubles player Satwiksairaj Rankireddy tested positive for COVID-19, as part of tests conducted by the Indian government prior to the national sports awards. Six members of the Indian men's hockey team too had tested positive while another three wrestlers including World Championships silver medallist Deepak Punia tested positive prior to the start of the national camp in Sonepat.

Considering the current trajectory of cases in India - with more than 3.5 million having tested positive -- more athletes are expected to test positive. As such, officials at the Sports Authority of India tell ESPN that they are working on a protocol for how to restart training for athletes who have recovered from COVID-19.

In the meantime, athletes are charting their own recovery regimens. Golfer SSP Chawrasia, a four-time winner on the European tour, was the first high profile Indian sportsperson to test positive for COVID-19. The 42-year-old had shown no symptoms and had only been tested since he was travelling to Europe for a tournament in the first week of August. After a second test in August 13 showed he was clear of coronavirus, Chawrasia returned to the golf course only after a week and resumed practicing, but only his short game. He stepped on to the green on Monday to play the complete course. Golf though doesn't make the stamina and power demands of athletes that badminton and wrestling does.

Like Chawrasia, Satwiksairaj, hasn't had any symptoms either. "I felt absolutely fine before I went to take the test. When I went to the hospital, they asked me 'Kyu aya hai (why have you come)?" Satwik says. The positive test was a surprise for Vinesh too. She was also tested prior to the national sport awards where she won the Khel Ratna.

Vinesh admits panicking on hearing the result. "I stopped training immediately even though I hadn't felt unwell at all prior to the test. This coronavirus situation affected me mentally more than physically," she says. "The only thing you hear on the news for the past six months is how deadly the virus is. I started imagining that every small thing was coronavirus. I started wondering if I was having shortness of breath or whether a cough was something much worse. I started drinking hot water. But in my case at least, everything was in my head."

Satwiksairaj thinks that might be the same for him as well. "I did feel a little weaker. I tried exercising in my room but felt I had to sit down after some time. But I don't know if that was the virus, the side effects of the preventive medication I'm taking or just my imagination," he says.

When it comes to post-recovery training, he says he will be playing safe. "The doctors are telling me that perhaps because I'm young and strong, I'm not showing any symptoms. But there's definitely a virus inside me. So it's best if I take things easy for some time because right now no one really knows what effect this illness has in the long term," he says. While his instinct is to take things slow, things have got a lot more complicated -- since the Badminton World Federation announced the resumption of the international season in October.

"Before the test, according to my coach's advice, I was training at about 50-60 percent of my usual intensity because there was no tournament to prepare for. The plan was to slowly build myself up to competition-level fitness once the badminton calendar became clear. The plan was that it would take about a month to get back to that level if I targeted a 10 percent improvement in my workload each week," he says. Should the season start next month though, Satwiksairaj won't have anywhere near enough time to prepare. "I'll have to take a second test in another two days and if I'm negative, I'll still wait for another week to start training. But I'll need longer than four weeks because I've also taken time off. Right now the only thing I'm hoping for is that these tournaments don't affect our rankings."

Vinesh isn't planning on being as conservative. The fact that she's shown absolutely no symptoms understandably complicates things. While her physio wanted her to hold off training, Vinesh has decided to go ahead. "I've had many situations in my career where I've been really ill and the doctor has advised me to rest but I've competed anyway. This situation is nowhere close to that. My physiotherapist told me to rest completely for 14 days after this. I replied that it's taken all my self-control to do nothing for this amount of time," she says.

Therefore, she hasn't waited as long as what The Lancet study suggests. On Wednesday, a day after she tested negative for COVID-19, Vinesh resumed working out. "I have a cycling machine and a treadmill at my home. I've started training on that. I have a weight set too but I'm not using that for now. I have an understanding of my body and I won't push myself either," she says.