Published March 23rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
For many, passing by St. Peter’s gates while skiing above the treeline in Zermatt, Switzerland, would not come as much of a surprise. The remote slopes are that close to heavenly.
Adventure seekers flock to the spot in the Swiss Alps for year-round snow sports in the sky, by way of the The Klein Matterhorn cable car. It pulls skiers to the region’s highest cable station at 12,500 feet.
Up there, social distancing has always been in place — Mother Nature’s order. One can only travel to the mountains if weather conditions are permitting. Glacial skiing in Zermatt means nothing but the white snow and sky.
Nearby, the ancient Matterhorn’s four rocky gray walls extend more than 14,000 feet into the clouds. The Matterhorn was one of the final Alpine mountains to be ascended, only because of the fear that permeated climbers throughout history.
For skiers, a trip to Zermatt is on the bucket list. Kansas City native Anna Church crossed it off just in time.
The dream trip came after Church, a professional volleyball player for Swiss Club Geneve Volley, watched her team’s season come to an end after a disappointing and injury-prone run of competition in Swiss National League A. The club fell short of qualifying for the postseason tournament of Switzerland’s top competitive sports league.
The early start to the offseason lined up perfectly with the weather window opening in Zermatt, so Church, along with a few fellow American teammates, set out for the Alps by train.
“We were celebrating being together because we knew it wasn’t going to be for that much longer,” Church said.
Teammates were making travel plans home and the new COVID-19 coronavirus had already made landfall in Europe. The virus was spreading around the continent.
Concerns were growing.
With cases confirmed where she lived in Geneva, Church and her teammates, who rely completely on public transportation, were already taking the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the disease.
Church says her circles were especially alert, considering Switzerland’s shared border with northern Italy, which became the world’s hardest-hit region late last week.
She watched first-hand how the country was affected by COVID-19, after traveling to Milan in early February.
“It wasn’t on the news, nothing was shut down, no one was really concerned about it,” Church recalled. “We were in Milan and everything was normal, then a week later we saw everybody panicking in northern Italy. Seeing pictures of Milan, where we had just been, and seeing pictures of the grocery stores cleared out in Milan was really surreal. We had just been there.”
Just over one week ago, Church, her teammates and a few other American spring breakers enjoyed a full Wednesday on the slopes, followed by a night out for dinner and a few drinks.
Then, Italy had only been on lockdown for a few days. Americans, along with much of the rest of the world, still moved relatively freely, while minds were stuck wondering what was next.
At 2 a.m. Church’s phone blew up.
“My parents were like ‘you have to come home right now’,” Church said. President “Trump just announced that all flights from Europe will be banned. It starts on Friday.”
The United States made its move in the middle of the night for the group in Zermatt. Within minutes the entire house was awake, searching for trains back to Geneva and flights back to the states.
Church remembered the initial uncertainty surrounding what the European travel ban meant for American citizens getting home. Also, did flights stop Friday morning at 12:01 a.m. or in the evening at 11:59 p.m.?
Despite plenty of experience living out of backpacks, having played professionally for a few years in both Germany and France, there was no way Church would be able to take the four-hour train ride back to Geneva, pack up her whole life and be on the next flight out at 9 a.m.
Instead, Church cut the Zermatt trip well short. Less than 24 hours since she arrived at the foot of the Matterhorn, she headed back to Geneva to pack for a day, say a few goodbyes before returning home on Friday morning — all the way home.
The Geneva airport was full of anxious Americans, but leaving was a breeze. And to Church’s surprise, so was landing in Newark, New Jersey.
“I went through customs there and flew through in 15 or 20 minutes. I told them I was in Switzerland and in February I was in Italy and they were just like: ‘Have you been to China or Iran? OK, you’re good.’ No screening, no nothing.” Church said.
She landed in Kansas City on Friday at 5 p.m. The ban was implemented that night at midnight. Now, under a self-imposed 14-day quarantine at her parents’ house in Kansas City, Church has had some time to reflect on her whirlwind of a week.
As a member of the University of Kansas 2015 Final Four team, her heart is broken for athletes all over, but especially for those who would have competed in March Madness.
Church has been forced to get creative when it comes to working out. She primarily uses items from around the house and makes a futon work as a weight bench.
As for working from home, Church is also a pro. When she’s not at the gym for practice or training, home is the only office she knows. Away from the court, the 26-year-old makes a living as a freelance artist, graphic and web designer.
“I was planning to come home (in the offseason) and basically be at home working on this website nonstop,” Church said. “I’m a little bit jealous of the people who are bored.”
Joking aside, Church said newly remote workers should listen to work-from-home advice. Whether it’s working on one of her colorful oil paintings or a complex website design, she says a few pointers really do seem to make a difference.
“What experts say about staying on a schedule is huge. Staying on a schedule keeps you sane and makes everything better,” Church said.
“I definitely suggest not doing it in PJs. It’s fun for a little while, but then at the point when you actually need to be productive… it can be tough. When you’re getting up and getting ready as if you were going somewhere, it helps you mentally prepare to be more productive during the day,” she added.
“And you only have so many PJs.”
This article is a part of Flatland’s SportsTown Series: A collection of stories covering the average athletes, niche-sport elites and everyone else dedicated to the games you’ve never heard of, could easily be a part of, and just might want to love that make Kansas City truly a one-of-a-kind sports town.