Jan. 24—Dr. Michael Stuart has been here before, but it never gets old.
And even in the age of COVID-19, the chair of the Sports Medicine department at Mayo Clinic is like a kid at Christmastime as he prepares to head to Los Angeles on Sunday.
It's there that he'll assume his duties as the team physician for the United States men's Olympic hockey team. After three days of meetings, testing and practices, Dr. Stuart and the U.S. team will leave for Beijing. The U.S. is scheduled to play its first game on Feb. 10 against host China.
"I am very, very excited to go," Dr. Stuart said, "but also a bit anxious because of the whole COVID situation with the omicron variant surge as we speak. We're just trying to get the men's and women's teams over to Beijing. It's a pretty restrictive environment."
All athletes, coaches, staff and traveling parties headed to the Olympics will be tested for COVID when they land at the airport in Beijing, and they will be tested daily throughout the Games.
"The testing protocols and the ability to enter the country are rigorous," Dr. Stuart said. "It's a rather onerous process, especially for players and staff who are labeled as 'recovered' within the last 30 days — meaning if they've had a positive test in that time, there's a different set of rules to follow as far as the number of negative tests they must have to become cleared to travel.
"We're very optimistic and very excited. We're doing everything we can to get our teams over there."
While the Beijing Games will mark Dr. Stuart's fifth Olympics, the constant testing and protocols to limit the spread of COVID will make these Games entirely different from his previous experiences traveling with U.S. hockey teams to international competitions.
He was in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010, when the U.S. men's hockey team won silver medals. And he was in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, when the U.S. lost the bronze medal game, but Warroad native T.J. Oshie made an Olympic memory by scoring four times in a shootout to help the U.S. beat Russia.
But when asked if the travel, preparation and on-site work ever get old, Dr. Stuart's answer is simple: Never. It's still the Olympics, he still gets to represent his country by wearing its red, white and blue, and he still gets one of the best seats in the house to watch high-level hockey.
"I'm really excited about it," said Dr. Stuart, whose daughter Cristin and sons Mike, Colin and Mark all played Division I college hockey. "It will be a bit of a different experience, but ... for me, really it's a dream come true because you get to witness the sport of ice hockey at its finest. These are elite, skilled athletes who are coming together to represent their country, and that whole environment is very incredible.
"It's televised internationally, so the exposure dwarfs the Stanley Cup Finals by I don't know how many fold."
There is little time for Dr. Stuart — and all members of Team USA's medical staff — to sit back and enjoy the Games. While his primary responsibility in Beijing is the health and safety of the U.S. men's hockey team, Dr. Stuart is also a member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's medical team, which includes physicians, athletic trainers, chiropractors, message therapists and more.
He will work closely with the team doctor for the U.S. women's hockey team, as well as coaches and athletes in many other sports.
"We all work together in the USOPC clinic," Dr. Stuart said. "I can evaluate and treat athletes in other sports at that venue. In the past I've taken care of women's hockey players, figure skaters, etc.
"I'll work very closely with the athletic trainers for the (men's) hockey team and be at every practice and every game."
Dr. Stuart will also stay in contact with not only Olympic team coaches, but if a player suffers an injury, he'll communicate with their college or professional coach (NHL players are not participating in this year's Games, so the U.S. team is made up primarily of college players and U.S.-born players who currently play professionally in Europe or other countries).
"For me, it's being part of a team," he said. "The ability to earn a gold isn't because of my role, it's because of the players and coaches, but they accept you as part of the team and rely on you and develop bonds.
"I have gotten to know many players over the years because of my experiences and I value the opportunity very, very much."