March 21, 2022

Despite Pandemic, Olympics Bring Golden Moments for Steward Orthopedist

Andrew Cooper, MD, attended his third Olympics as US Freeski Head Team Physician

Every year, an estimated 10 million people visit the Great Wall of China. Despite being able to see the largest man-made structure on Earth from his hotel room at the XXIV Winter Olympic Games, due to COVID-19 restrictions, that’s as close as Dr. Andrew Cooper would get to it during his recent trip to Beijing as the head physician for the US Freeski Team.

“The Great Wall of China was right outside my hotel room, but I couldn’t go to it,” said Dr. Cooper, who is an orthopedic surgeon at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center in Utah, and member of Steward Medical Group. 

That was just one of the effects of the pandemic at the Winter Olympic Games where the US Freeski Team brought home five medals, including one gold, two silver, and two bronze. These Olympics were the “most unusual” of the three Dr. Cooper has attended. After 36 total hours of travel to a time zone 15 hours ahead of Utah, in place of the usual Olympic fanfare, he will remember these Games for daily COVID-19 tests, the kindness and joy of Olympic volunteers, the perseverance of athletes despite dangerous wind chills and brutal cold and being confined to “the bubble” except for trips to the emergency room with injured athletes. “There was not a lot to do,” Dr. Cooper said. “You couldn’t go anywhere outside of the bubble.”

Freeski - where athletes showcase daring jumps and tricks - consists of three disciplines: Half-pipe, Slopestyle, and Big Air, the last of which debuted at this Olympics. Freeski is a high-risk sport with a high rate of injuries which kept Dr. Cooper busy throughout the Games, accompanying several athletes to the ER following injuries in practice or competition. The Freeski events were based in Zhangjiakou, about 100 miles northwest of Beijing, and the hospital was about 25-minutes away from the venue. Keeping with pandemic protocol, a portion of the ER had been built for dedicated care of injured or ill Olympic athletes, maintaining “the bubble.” Medical staff were dressed in full hazmat-type suits, including goggles and masks. They extended enthusiastic greetings to Dr. Cooper, even asking for autographs and memorializing the visit with a group photo.

“They treated me with great kindness,” he said. The first ER visit was completed in a speedy 90 minutes, including examination, diagnostic testing, brace fitting, and crutches. Language barriers and PPE made communicating challenging, yet he and a Chinese surgeon attempted to converse about anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee surgery. Another athlete who was injured during a practice run required emergency dental care.  “(The athlete) ended up competing and qualified for Finals,” he said. “It was kind of an amazing example of athlete perseverance.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Cooper missed the Freeski Men’s Slopestyle medal ceremony, where the U.S. took gold and silver. The two Slopestyle Olympic champions later sent him a video thanking him for his care, a gesture that moved him to tears. In the spirit of sports superstition, during Finals, he wore a pair of socks that have come to be known as “the lucky medal socks.” He had them on in 2014 when the U.S. won multiple Freeski medals, again in 2018 for another multi-medal Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and for both Slopestyle and Half-pipe podiums in China. “A lot of medals have been won with those socks,” he said.

Dr. Cooper has been the Freeski Team’s lead physician since its inception in 2011 and many of the athletes have also been his patients, some undergoing numerous surgeries and grueling rehabilitation to return to top form. That dedicated care of elite athletes underscores his role and medical skills as their orthopedic surgeon and team physician. Knowing the challenges his athletes have been through to chase their Olympic dreams inspires him time and again. “The way they can rise up is amazing,” he said. “It’s the highlight of their sport. This is their time.”

Because of Covid, athletes’ families could not attend events in-person, leading many Olympians to hold up oversized photos of their loved ones while on the medal podium for families to see during “watch parties” back home. More than 6,000 miles from Salt Lake City and with the pandemic restrictions, the Games felt a bit isolating, Dr. Cooper said. A heartwarming chance encounter at Beijing Capital International Airport provided a cherished memory though. While awaiting his flight back, he bumped into the son of a former colleague - the late Carmella Nelson - who had been a beloved physical therapist at Salt Lake Regional and had worked with him in support of Ballet West, the city’s ballet company. “It was a crazy, small world thing,” he said of meeting her son.

The next Winter Olympic Games will be in Italy in 2026. Already Dr. Cooper is contemplating attending with the team. His prior Olympic experience helped make the Games in China easier to navigate despite the anxiety and extraordinary conditions Covid created. The entire Olympic experience has also allowed him to create lasting friendships and bonds he would otherwise never have made but is so grateful to have as a part of his life.

“It’s been nothing like I thought when I signed up for it,” Dr. Cooper said, “but it really is an amazingly unique experience.”