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SI Daily Cover: Johan Hultin, the Former Athlete Who Predicted Today's Coronavirus Pandemic

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Ninety-five-year-old adventurer Johan Hultin is a former athlete of the year who played a prominent role in educating others on the Spanish flu. In his findings, Hultin predicted that the world would once again face another pandemic at some point. SI contributing writer, Michael McKnight breaks down the fascinating story of Hultin and why it's relevant today.

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Madelyn Burke: The curiosity of Johan Hultin, a hiker and former athlete of the year who ventured into Alaska to dig up mass graves of the victims of the 1918 Spanish flu may help people today learn about the coronavirus is the closest analog we have to the current pandemic. Michael McKnight writes about the now ninety-five-year-old adventure and the ability to persist for today's daily cover. Michael, first of all, how did you first come across this story?

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Michael McKnight: Well, like a lot of sportswriters, we're pretty bereft of things to write about these days. So, you know, my editors and I are in constant conversation about what can we write about. And I remembered in my in some synapse in my head San Francisco Chronicle story from 2002 about this outdoorsman, hiker, mountaineer. And then I read recently a book by Gina Kolata of The New York Times called Flew, which is That, which is a quintessential book on the 1918 pandemic. And Johan Hultin played a prominent role in each of those stories. And he is a sportsman without question. So I floated the idea to our editors in New York and off we went. I got him on the phone. I got Johan on the phone. And what can we learn from this man was that was the main question. 


Madelyn Burke:  Yeah. And I mean, that is the question there. I mean, you talked to him. He did this twice. So what did Hultin learn from both of his hikes into the Alaskan wilderness?

Michael McKnight: Well, first, I think he learned a lot about himself. Which one of the reasons I think this story is interesting is that he flew blind and it wasn't like he had a big operation supporting him. It was a one-man show both times going into some of the harshest environments in the world. Secondly, he learned once he brought the tissue back to his colleagues in the states, he learned that there would be other pandemics, that these viruses, whether it's a flu virus or any sort of contagion. The table is set for something like 1918 to happen again. So I think that was his biggest takeaway, was that it's not over when 1918 pandemic was when it went away. Things were far from over.

Madelyn Burke: Absolutely. A lot we can learn. A great read right here. Michael McKnight, thank you so much for taking the time and for writing this interesting story.

Michael McKnight:  Thank you. Appreciate it.