Covid casts long shadow over New Zealand paddler Jones

Covid casts long shadow over New Zealand paddler Jones - Health - News

New Zealand’s Luuka Jones: Overcoming Long Covid to Pursue Olympic Dream

The Paris Olympics, set to take place in the coming months, will be free of the stringent Covid-19 restrictions that marked the Tokyo and Beijing Games. However, for New Zealand canoe slalom trailblazer Luuka Jones, taking extra precautions to protect her health remains a priority after her harrowing experience with long Covid.

At 35, Jones’ aspirations of competing in a fifth Olympics once seemed implausible as she endured more than a year-long recovery process following her diagnosis with long Covid in early 2022. Long Covid presented unique challenges that extended beyond the thrill of racing down a white-water course, as even simple daily tasks left her feeling fatigued enough to render her unable to carry on for the remainder of the day.

“I’d get really tired just from mowing the lawn or going for a walk,” she shared in an interview with Reuters. “I had to go to bed afterwards because I was so tired, and I basically had to cut down on my activities to three a week.”

It wasn’t until last October that Jones felt the firm grip of Covid release its hold on her. This was a significant month in her career, as it coincided with her winning the World Cup gold medal in kayak cross at the Vaires-sur-Marne venue where the Olympic canoeing would take place from July 27.

“The win gave me confidence that I could be a major contender at Paris,” she said. “Eight years after taking New Zealand’s first Olympic canoeing medal with a silver in the K1 category at the Rio Games, I will become the third New Zealand woman to compete at five Games, joining shot put icon Valerie Adams and former Olympic champion sailor Barbara Kendall. It’s such a privilege to be in their company.”

Despite her impressive track record, Jones understands nothing is guaranteed. Long Covid provided valuable reminders of the fragility of her health and the challenges that come with it.

“I’ve had my fair share of setbacks,” she admitted. “After a couple of months’ rest at home in 2022, I thought I was over the worst. However, I ‘almost fell off a cliff’ with fatigue after heading overseas for a training block. That year, I spent much of the New Zealand winter in a hyperbaric chamber and later suffered a neck injury and a series of illnesses that nearly drove me to quit.”

“As I told my fiancé, every time I came back, ‘Is this something I want to do? I don’t feel good and I’m not back at that level,’” she shared. “There was always the doubt whether I could return to the top of the sport and whether I had more to give mentally and physically.”

Long Covid has affected numerous high-profile athletes, including British Tour de France winner Chris Froome and American ice hockey player Jonathan Toews. Jones shared that managing her illness was an ongoing process of “trial and error” and seeking guidance from fellow athletes and a local physiologist in New Zealand with expertise in the condition.

“Now that I’m back in the high-performance athlete grind, long Covid has made me more resilient for my final Olympic tilt at a medal,” she said. “However, it’s left a psychological mark. I go about my life normally but there’s always this fear in the back of my mind – ‘What if I get it again? What if it hits me hard?’”

“But you just don’t know where or when you can get Covid from,” she added. “In terms of my training, I’m very self-aware and have learned to read my body really well.”


Luuka Jones, a trailblazer for New Zealand’s Olympic canoeing team, has shown remarkable resilience in her pursuit of competing at the Paris Olympics. Her experiences with long Covid have reminded her of the importance of self-awareness, mental fortitude, and seeking the right support to overcome challenges and continue chasing her dreams.