Coaching in quarantine: How Erin Virtue handled USA volleyball’s 1st Olympic match from Tokyo’s COVID-19 jail.

·4 min read

TOKYO — As the U.S. women’s volleyball team took the court for its first match earlier this week, offensive coordinator Erin Virtue fired up her laptop in a hotel several miles away and began one of the most unusual — but quintessentially pandemic-era — coaching jobs in Olympic history.

Ordered into quarantine because someone on her flight to Tokyo tested positive, Virtue — a Wheaton, Ill., native and former University of Illinois standout — was barred from competitions and training sessions for several days at the start of the Games. She improvised by watching two spotty livestreams during the opening match and sharing her insights via a walkie-talkie app with a team analyst in Ariake Arena.

The analyst, who was sitting in the stands, then radioed her thoughts to the coaching staff on the bench. The communication was seamless, Virtue said, just not the Olympic experience she had imagined.

Virtue spoke to the Chicago Tribune by phone Wednesday from — where else? — her Tokyo hotel room, where she was serving her 10th day of quarantine and reviewing video for the squad’s upcoming match against Turkey. She was upbeat and uninfected as she waits to be set free on Day 14.

“In a selfish way, I was sad to miss the match. I wanted to be there,” she said of the American women’s thumping of Argentina in the opening round. “What gave me comfort was knowing that our team was really well-prepared.”

Virtue does not know whose positive COVID-19 test sent her into lockdown. The Japanese government defines an in-flight close contact as anyone sitting within two rows — front, back or across the plane — of the infected passenger.

No other members of the U.S. volleyball delegation were dinged for having a close contact and, as such, avoided the quarantine.

“The real blessing is that I wasn’t anywhere near our players or the rest of our delegation,” she said.

Virtue learned about her close contact a few days after arriving in Tokyo and immediately was remanded to “COVID jail,” as quarantine has been derisively referred to here. For the next five days, she remained inside her room at all times, unable to even step outside for fresh air or grab food. Instead, she had meals dropped at her door by UberEats or U.S. volleyball members.

Virtue attended training sessions via FaceTime, which allowed her to speak directly to players and give them instant feedback. Otherwise, she has spent most of her time watching scouting videos in her room, then calling players and fellow coaches by phone to discuss.

She took multiple COVID-19 tests in those initial days. All of them came back negative, allowing her to enter into a “soft quarantine” that permitted her to attend games and practices as long as she adhered to a strict protocol. No high-fives, no sitting on the bench, no huddling with players during timeouts.

Masked at all times, of course. And maintaining six feet of social distance, naturally.

Virtue, who is vaccinated, cannot travel on the team bus or with any member of the volleyball delegation. Instead, she must hire a private car to take her to games and get a waiver from the driver acknowledging his willingness to allow her inside his vehicle.

She now takes three COVID-19 tests — one spit and two brain-ticklers — each day. All have come back negative.

“I get it,” she said. “I get that Tokyo 2020 wants to do everything possible to make these Games safe. I’m a rule follower by nature, so I’m trying to make sure I’m following everything the way I’m supposed to.”

It’s not easy. Many of the rules, particularly the in-game restrictions, run counter to her coaching style and natural instincts. So she now works on two game plans before each match — one for the actual competition and one for how she’s going to adhere to protocols during it.

(First step: Don’t go anywhere near the huddle during timeouts. In fact, stand about 15 feet away from it so there’s absolutely no doubt.)

“The last thing I want is to be on TV accidentally doing something I’m not supposed to do,” she said. “I don’t want to be sent backward into another hard lockdown.”

It may be happening at a global event, but Virtue doesn’t think her experience is all that unique. The pandemic, she said, has forced everyone to find creative ways to do our jobs and live our lives.

Her Olympic experience is just a reflection of that.

“That’s something we’ve all had to learn in the past year, isn’t it?” she asked. “Trying to think out of the box is the new normal.”

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