Ellie Blackburn on playing elite sport after COVID-19

Ellie Blackburn looks to kick for the Bulldogs.

We’ve seen young, fit athletes bounce back after contracting COVID-19, seemingly unaffected — indeed, Nick Kyrgios won the Australian Open men’s doubles crown having had the virus shortly before the Open started.

But Western Bulldogs’ AFLW captain, Ellie Blackburn — who caught COVID-19 when it ripped through the club early in the season — was not one of those athletes.

A club-wide outbreak

The Bulldogs had two of their first three matches this season cancelled because they were unable to field a team of healthy players.

“To start off with, I did everything I could to avoid getting COVID,” Blackburn said on the The W with Sharni and Sam podcast.

“I thought the only place I wouldn’t get it was at footy, so I was pretty much just at home, footy and that was basically it.

“And then the place that I thought was the safest ended up being where everyone caught it.”


‘My head felt like it was going to explode’

Blackburn says her symptoms were varied.

“My head felt like it was going to explode, it was so hot and [I had] the headaches and all that came with it,” she says.

“But I didn’t necessarily get the other symptoms, like a runny nose or cough or sore throat.

“Mine were the fatigue and the energy levels completely gone.

“There were days where I tried to get out of bed and then I just couldn’t, so I just laid in bed all day.”

She experienced a kind of lingering “head-fog” in the period following her isolation, and when she returned to footy training, she realised it was a team-wide issue.

Ellie Blackburn looks to kick for the Bulldogs.
Ellie Blackburn seriously struggled with the after-effects of COVID-19. (Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

“There was a training session we had, the first one back, and the midfield group was together, and Burkey [head coach Nathan Burke] … he was having a firm conversation, providing some strong feedback,” Blackburn says.

“We were all standing there, with our hands on our hips, being like, ‘Yeah, absolutely’.

“And then we walked away and not one of us really realised what was actually being said, because the brain fog was just really prominent at that moment.

“It was in one ear and out the other – I don’t even actually think it went in one ear, to be honest.”

‘I just felt like my body gave out on me.’

But it wasn’t until the first game back that Blackburn realised exactly how severely the virus had shredded her stamina, endurance and even her ability to breathe.

“You can’t even do the warm-up without having to stop and try [to] take some deep breaths,” she says.

“It was a real battle, and that first game back was, to be honest, a horrible experience.

“I really, really struggled throughout that game. I just felt like my body gave out on me.”

Even running back to the bench felt like an ordeal.

Ellie Blackburn follows through with a kick for the Bulldogs Ellie Blackburn follows through with a kick for the Bulldogs
Ellie Blackburn found the mental effects of COVID-19 just as difficult to overcome as the physical symptoms. (Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

“It was just trying to get that one deep breath in … it felt like I couldn’t get that in throughout the game,” Blackburn says.

“And there were times where I just looked at the bench and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s so far away’, like, ‘How am I actually going to make it to the bench?’”

The feeling of breathlessness was nearly suffocating, even while sitting down.

“Every time I went to the bench, if there was anyone remotely near me, they kind of copped it,” she says.

“I was like, “Can you please move away? Like, ‘I just need space? I need air’.

“And the doctors were regularly checking in and making sure I was OK, and I kept looking at [them] being like, ‘Not really, not OK’.”

‘The girls that can bounce back — I’m so jealous’

Blackburn’s currently basking in the warm glow of victory, after leading her team to a win over the ladder-leading Adelaide Crows last weekend.

But that horrible experience of her first game back after COVID-19 will stick with her.

“There’s games where you just find a way to get your body going, but I just couldn’t,” she says.

“I felt like I couldn’t run, I couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t get a deep breath in.

“So I hope nobody experiences that … the girls that can bounce back straight after it — I’m so jealous and completely in awe of what they’re able to do.

“It’s impressive if players can bounce back immediately from it.”



Author: Ivan Robinson