Covid-19

Stay or come home: Kiwi sports stars’ dilemma

Two Kiwi professional sportsmen and their families were caught by the spread of Covid-19 in Italy - one came home but the other is hunkering down in Treviso. Jim Kayes reports.

Joseph Kayes doesn’t want to be back home in Tauranga.

Sure it’s comforting to be out of Italy where Covid-19 continues to cut a deadly swathe and it’s always good to be home, but it’s not where he wants to be.

He wants to be finishing off the European Championship League with his Recco water polo club - who were to host the finals - not sitting in isolation at his parents' place in Papamoa.

He wants to be gearing up for a second tilt at Olympic gold with the Australian team he played for at the Rio Olympics, four years ago.

Mum’s cooking is superb, but it’s not the taste he wants right now.

“It’s disappointing,” the 29-year-old product of Mt Maunganui College says. “After the European champs we had the world league and then the Olympics. As an athlete this is what you live for. It’s why we train and play.

“It’s surreal. You don’t think the worst case scenarios will ever happen and all the worst case scenarios have happened.

“As an athlete I’m just watching my year in delete mode. There is nothing there.”

It’s the same for All Whites footballer Niko Kirwan, the son of celebrated All Blacks wing and mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan, who also plys his trade in Italy, playing for Reggiana in the Serie C league.

With his team second on the table, Kirwan was eyeing a strong finish to the season, his third in Italy where he spent the bulk of his school years while his dad coached the Italian national side and then Japan.

“I’m supposed to be back at training on April 4 but that’s been pushed back and we might not be able to finish the season, which sucks.”

Niko Kirwan doing an improvised weights session with girlfriend Claudia. Photo: supplied

But Kirwan knows all too well how serious the deadly spread of Covid-19 is.

“One of my teammates has it and I sat next to him in the changing sheds,” Kirwan says. That was, thankfully, three weeks ago so Kirwan is now in the clear but it prompted a shift from his apartment in Reggio Emilia, which is near the epicentre of the breakout in Italy, to his family home in Treviso where he is hunkered down with his girlfriend, Claudia.

“You never think about how serious it is but then it got quite scary when my teammate got the virus.”

With testing not available, Kirwan had to wait out the two week incubation period to see if he got sick before he could move to his parents’ house.

“That was scary and mentally you keep thinking about it and you’re scared that without knowing you have it, you might have helped spread it.”

Having lived in Italy for 10 years as a child before finishing his last two years of school at Auckland’s Sacred Heart College, Kirwan says the country is as much his home as New Zealand.

So he didn’t seriously consider shifting back to Auckland as the virus spread in Italy.

“It’s going to be all around the world, it’s just that maybe in New Zealand (with a much smaller population than Italy) you will be able to contain it.”

The prospect of travelling was off-putting too.

The hygiene at airports and on planes was a worry for Kayes as he flew home last week with his partner Jordyn and their three month-old son Jai.

But having seen Recco, where he plays for the town’s hugely successful waterpolo club, turn into a police state, Kayes knew it was time to leave.

“The virus was mainly in the north so we weren’t too bad in Recco but it was just a matter of time.

Joseph Kayes and son Jai in Recco, Italy. Photo: Supplied.

“They’d suspended our season, it was hard to move around, everything was closed, international travel was getting tricky and the Australian Olympic people wanted the players home, or closer to home.”

Deciding to go was easy; leaving was much tougher.

Strict travel rules meant forms had to be filled out and approved just to leave their apartment, and when they arrived at Milan Airport, it was like nothing the couple had ever seen before.

Usually one of the busiest airports in the world, there were just eight flights that day. Passengers had to wait outside the terminal for their flight to be called - one flight inside at a time.

Some didn’t make it through the doors.

“We saw a lot of people stopped because they didn’t have the paperwork or their next flight was to a country that had closed it’s airport.”

On the Munich to Doha leg home there were just 50 passengers on board the 777 plane.

Some passengers wore masks, but Kayes realised that for him, it was a waste of time.

“We knew that if one of us was going to get it, all three of us were, and good luck keeping a face mask on a three month old.”

Kayes is used to living away from New Zealand. He left home at 18 to play water polo in Hungary at Szeged where he was mentored by the legendary Tamas Molnar, who has three Olympic gold medals.

After five years he shifted to Australia and played for them at the last Olympics, in Rio, before moving to Italy in 2018.

With the Tokyo games now postponed and the world in chaos, Kayes admits the safety of his parents’ house in Papamoa is appealing - even if it’s not where he wants to be.

For Kirwan, Italy is no longer recognisable.

“Everything is shut. Deliveries have stopped. The only time I leave the house is to go to the supermarket and we try to keep that to once a week.

“And it’s weird when we go, because there is no one out on the streets.

“Treviso is normally really busy with people in the bars and cafes. It’s so empty. It doesn’t feel like Italy now.”

*Made with the support of NZ On Air*

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