As members of the U.S. Freeski Team prepare to head to the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their families will be unable to accompany them. But they will have a familiar and trusted face alongside them: Dr. Andrew Cooper, a Steward Medical Group orthopedist at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, a Steward Health Care hospital, who serves as the team’s head physician.
Like some members of the U.S. Freeski Team, this will be Dr. Cooper’s third Winter Olympic Games, having directed the athletes’ medical care in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. Despite his prior experience, these Winter Games will be unlike any other, given the highly contagious Omicron variant and China’s “Zero Tolerance” COVID approach that has millions of its residents in lockdown ahead of the Olympics, hoping to contain further transmission of the disease.
“Given all the COVID applications, it will be another experience for certain,” Dr. Cooper said.
His airplane tickets are purchased, and he plans to leave for Beijing on Feb. 7. Once there, Dr. Cooper, the medical team and the Olympians will undergo daily testing for COVID-19 and be housed in a “bubble” following strict COVID protocols. Unlike past Olympics, he will not be permitted to walk in the Opening Ceremony alongside the athletes who are in his care. He and other members of the medical team- who are all volunteers- will oversee all training and practice times, however, and be present during competitions to respond should any athlete require medical attention.
The U.S. Freeski Team formed in 2011 and Dr. Cooper has been its only head team physician. Headquartered in Park City, Utah, team members gained familiarity with Dr. Cooper through his work within the Utah ski and ski medicine community, approaching him with the opportunity. Following the completion of his Orthopedic Surgery fellowship at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Denver, CO, in 2005, Dr. Cooper became a member of the 200-strong physician pool who travel with and provide medical care for the U.S. Ski Team, experience that led to his present role. He has been an Orthopedic surgeon and Sports Medicine provider at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center for 17 years, treating an estimated 50,000 patients and performing approximately 10,000 orthopedic surgeries. He and his team, which includes physical therapists, nurses, and other care providers, have also successfully treated thousands of patients non-operatively. His clinical interests include minimally invasive techniques in ligament and cartilage reconstruction and safely returning athletes back to their sport and workers back to their jobs.
Going for Gold
Freeski- an exciting alpine skiing discipline punctuated by tricks and jumps- debuted at the Olympic Games in 2014 and this year, the Big Air Freeski discipline will make its premiere. The athletes who train and compete in these highly skilled and thrilling sports also experience injury at a high rate. The 16-member U.S. team includes a number of athletes who are recovering from injuries as they head into the Games and Dr. Cooper and his team’s job is to ensure they are healthy to safely compete on the world stage.
“Our sport has a high injury rate and many of the athletes will be competing in their third Olympics following injuries and rehabilitation that I have helped them with,” he said. “It’s been an honor.”
Although Freeski has only been an Olympic sport for the past eight years, the team is fairly accomplished in the two Winter Games it has competed in, winning four gold, four silver, and two bronze medals. “You become such a part of their story,” Dr. Cooper said. “I really want to be there for our athletes and see them realize their dreams. It’s a very powerful moment to be there when they realize their dreams.”
The pandemic has precluded Dr. Cooper, his colleagues, and the team from visiting Beijing ahead of the Olympics. Typically, the athletes would test the courses, gaining familiarity ahead of their competitive runs. Once in Beijing, Dr. Cooper and the medical staff will tour local hospitals, meet with medical teams on the ground, and make plans to coordinate care should an athlete sustain an injury. The United States Olympic Committee months ago shipped over medications and equipment to have at the ready. The competitive venues also have medical clinics on-site with diagnostic equipment including X-ray and MRI machines, under the governance of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Medicine, Family and Patriotism
Twenty years after hosting the XIX Winter Olympic Games in 2002, Utah still basks in the afterglow. The Olympic venues in Park City continue to be a tourist draw and many people who are now patients at Dr. Cooper’s Steward Orthopedic & Sports Medicine clinics have relocated to the area during the pandemic. His participation in previous Winter Games and seeing the provision of medical care in other countries has benefitted those in his care at home, he said. “It has helped me look at our Salt Lake clinics and see how we can do things differently or better.”
An accomplished skier and endurance athlete, Dr. Cooper was drawn to Orthopedics after his introduction to anatomy during a college course, learning about the form and function of the body, which is the basis of orthopedic care. Given his athletic pursuits, he can relate to the Olympic and everyday athletes and occupational workers in his care, having trained and sustained his share of injuries. He is a familiar face in the community and appreciates that his patients like to share the success of their recoveries with him, be they Olympians, miners back at work in Elko, Nevada, or baggage workers at the new Salt Lake City airport.
“It’s great,” Dr. Cooper said. “You feel like they’re a part of your family. I think through the years my family has gotten very big.”
While China continues its preparation for the Olympics amid the pandemic, an air of uncertainty lingers. Attendance will be by invitation only and restricted to residents of China’s mainland, and COVID-19 will curtail the ability to visit tourist attractions including the Great Wall of China. Despite the unique conditions as well as leaving his family behind and his orthopedic practice in the care of colleagues, Dr. Cooper looks forward to representing the medical field and supporting the athletes in his charge.
“Steward has been very supportive in this, which I so appreciate,” Dr. Cooper said. “I feel pretty blessed to have this opportunity. You feel as if you’re giving back to your country. It brings a different feeling, a different sense of patriotism.”