Boxing nurse in fight of her life against coronavirus pandemic

Kyodo News

Posted at Apr 20 2020 12:35 PM

TOKYO - She may be used to keeping her gloves up when defending herself in the boxing ring, but as a nurse on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, Olympic hopeful Arisa Tsubata's gloves are providing a defense of a different kind.

Tsubata has been balancing her huge responsibilities at a hospital near Tokyo with her boxing career while eyeing a spot in the women's middleweight event at the Summer Games next year.

"I'm a nurse. I want to contribute to preventing the virus from spreading even if it's only by a little," the 26-year-old said in a phone interview.

She missed her bid for an Olympic berth last month at the Asia and Oceania qualifiers in Amman, Jordan, where she made a first-round exit in her international debut. But she did not let the blow stop her from switching back to surgical gloves at her Saitama Prefecture hospital just days after touching down in Japan.

Amid a surge in the number of patients reporting coronavirus symptoms, she says all staff members at her hospital have been chipping in, no matter to which department they belong.

"We don't have enough people. Both our patients and our staff are very exhausted. Everyone is stressed," she said. "We cheer each other up while sharing (our concerns)."

Japan has seen an increase in the number of confirmed cases of infections in urban areas, topping 11,500 nationwide, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in February near Tokyo.

The government has requested people stay at home except for essential outings, and called on the public to socially distance in an attempt to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The outbreak has also led to cancellation and postponements of sports events all over the world.

Last month, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which were scheduled for this summer, were postponed following repeated calls by athletes and sports' governing bodies to consider the virus' impact on training, travel and qualifying.

If the coronavirus abates and all returns to relative normality, the Tokyo Olympics is set to take place from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021, followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Tsubata, who has a 1-1 career record, currently spends long hours at the hospital. She works for about 10 hours from 8:30 a.m. if she is on the day shift. When she is working nights, she is on duty between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. the following day.

Her everyday work life has changed drastically in just a couple of months, as have her preparations for the Olympics. She has refrained from training at a gym, and instead does so in a well-ventilated environment, keeping her distance from other people.

"I really want people to stop going out without thinking about the consequences. An additional outbreak can be prevented if we all exercise some patience," she said.

Tsubata is not the only athlete with skills in the medical field. There are similar examples around the world.

Para triathlete Susana Rodriguez has been working as a doctor in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, according to the International Paralympic Committee.

Rachael Lynch, the goalkeeper for Australia's women's field hockey team, has applied to work as a nurse at COVID-19 clinics, The Associated Press reported. Former major leaguer Mark Hamilton, a first baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals, will help treat patients in New York City after graduating from medical school, said.

For Tsubata, whose boxing career only goes back two years, the Olympics became a goal after winning her debut tournament at the national championships in October.

Since only two boxers competed in the middleweight division, Tsubata was crowned champion after one win.

Women's boxing has been contested at the Olympics since its inclusion at the 2012 London Games, but no female Japanese fighter has competed.

At March's qualifiers, Japanese boxers Tsukimi Namiki and Sena Irie claimed their spots in the women's flyweight and featherweight divisions, respectively.

With the final qualification meet expected to take place next year, Tsubata hopes to secure a spot at the Tokyo Games while still prioritizing her all-important work.

Due to the scale of virus-related deaths across the world, Tsubata finds it difficult to see how the Olympics will be considered a celebration.

Yet, she still wants to "earn the chance" to be there next year in Tokyo to show her appreciation to all the people who have supported her along the way.