TOKYO — Virginia Fuchs smashes her fist into her opponent’s skull. Sweat, and sometimes blood, flies as the athletes punch one another over and over again. Eventually the bout ends. Then the fight begins.
Fuchs, 33, has severe obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by a fear of contamination. Her condition would be a challenge for a human in the easiest of circumstances. And life as an Olympic boxer is not the easiest of circumstances.
Take brushing her teeth, for example. First, she dons gloves and uses soap and water to wash the exterior of her mouth. Then she washes the inside of her mouth. Then she tears open a package containing a brand-new toothbrush. Then another.
“I could use five in one tooth-brushing session,” she says. “I could use 20 in one tooth-brushing session.”
Rationally, she understands that none of this makes much sense. But OCD is not rational. She is searching not for a certain number of repetitions but for an elusive “clean feeling,” she says. Before a shower, she uses three different products to scrub around her mouth: facial cleansing wipes, soap and Aveeno daily washing pads. She repeats that cycle as many times as she needs to. The shower itself averages 45 minutes to an hour—down from 2019, when they sometimes ran four hours.
She sometimes discards unopened boxes of toiletries because they touched the ground. (After a few rounds of this, her mother, Peggy, suggested they begin donating those containers to women’s shelters, so now they do.) Fuchs does laundry several times a week; this process begins when she floats her shoes on paper plates full of bleach to disinfect the soles, then tosses them in the machine. She brought two suitcases full of cleaning supplies to the Olympics. They were empty in a week. She eventually signed up for an Amazon Japan account. Now she gets regular deliveries in the Olympic Village.
Fuchs was diagnosed in eighth grade, after she was hospitalized with anorexia. Doctors realized that the underlying illness was actually OCD. The disorder’s effects have fluctuated over the years: In college, in the aughts, it did not disrupt her life much. In 2019, she sought inpatient treatment. These days she finds herself somewhere in between those extremes.
“Her life is so much more difficult than yours and mine because of this,” says her father, Robert. “It's hard to imagine that she can survive.”
In some ways, says Peggy, the pandemic came as a relief. Finally, everyone else was disinfecting mail, too. And “she loves Tokyo,” Peggy says. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m moving here! It is so clean!’ ”
All this, and then Fuchs voluntarily lets strangers sweat and bleed on her. This seems like it would be excruciating. She says it’s the best part of her day. “It’s freeing,” she says. Outside the ring, her rational mind fights constantly to push back the intrusive thoughts. Inside the ring, she is too busy trying to earn gold to worry about whose spit is where.
She catalogs which parts of her body have come into contact with germs, but she does not dwell on the contamination. You’re doing this to be better at boxing, she tells herself in those moments. This is what you’re meant to do.
“After I'm done boxing, I'm kind of back to the real world,” she says. “That's when the thoughts come back, and that's when they haunt me.”
Her parents wonder what she will do after she retires. She says she has no intention of finding out anytime soon. She is a medal favorite here, and she plans to go pro after the Olympics. She believes her daily fight against OCD steels her for anything else she might face.
“I always kind of tell myself that’s why I’m the best boxer,” she says. “There’s no other athlete that can live my regular everyday, day-to-day life the way I do, and be able to be this world-class level.”
If she wins a medal, she says, she will pull it over her head without disinfecting it first. “Now, if the guy dropped it on the ground before it was on my neck, then I’d be like, ‘Aaah!’ ” she says, laughing. She might wince. She might think about how quickly after the ceremony she could get to a bathroom. But she would still put the medal on.
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