One moment Colin Nathan was preparing his boxer for a contest, the next he was lying in a Russian hospital with very real fears for his life. Tris Dixon reports
SOUTH AFRICAN trainer and fight manager Colin Nathan is finally back home after a month in a Russian hospital with Covid. He’d flown to Russia with his super-middleweight veteran Ryno Liebenberg at the start of June and tested positive shortly after landing in Saint Petersburg before the fight. Liebenberg lost to Fedor Chudinov on points, and Nathan watched it from a hospital bed about 20 miles from the venue.
Chudinov, stopped by George Groves in 2017, won by scores of 116-111, 119-108 and 118-109 and while Nathan doesn’t feel like his presence would have altered the outcome, he believed he could have got Ryno closer on the cards. “I felt helpless,” he recalled, of watching the fight on his phone via a TV set in South Africa where a friend set up a phone facing the screen. “I watched the fight and I saw so many gaps and opportunities where Ryno could have done things differently had I been there instructing him, but he had no directions, that was really tough. I was in hospital and you could say I felt vulnerable in a foreign place, but helpless was when I watched that fight.”
That was bad enough, but worse was to follow as his health deteriorated. He suffered lower back pain, he had problems with his kidneys and his throat was sore. More bad news followed. By now he was in a Russian Covid hospital and isolated. It was a bleak place and with the rest of the team back in South Africa, Nathan battled through more ailments.
“That was bad [when the others left] because obviously I wanted to go back with them and I think Ryno felt bad that they left but there was nothing they could do,” admitted Nathan. “They couldn’t visit me. Then, the scariest part was when I was told I had pneumonia in my left lung, and that really set me off and I thought about dying there in a Russian hospital and I thought of my kids and my family and the fact that my kids need a father, so that was really tough.”
He was ill, he felt terrible and he was getting worse. The food at the hospital didn’t help, either, but fortunately a local rabbi – who’d been contacted by Nathan’s family in South Africa – managed to send him food and he had taken a small supply of protein bars. It was a bleak looking place, but Nathan is grateful to those who nursed him back to health.
“The hospital was actually great, the medical staff were great, the people were fantastic,” he added. “They didn’t speak English except for the head doctor.”
But the virus also got into his sinuses, and he had to have them punctured under a local anaesthetic, and while he couldn’t feel it, he heard the crunch in his nose. Then, after about three weeks he started to feel better but he wouldn’t be released until he had taken a negative Covid test. In all, 11 tests came back positive and all he wanted to do was get home to his wife, Lara, and his children – and his fighters.
The 43-year-old owns the Hot Box Gym in Johannesburg and Liebenberg was a regular messenger during Nathan’s horrific month-long ordeal.
He also coaches former belt-holders Moruti Mthlane and Hekkie Budler but he won’t be training his guys for a while as he continues his recovery. But at least he’s home. It was a long trip back, via Paris, but he’s been home a week. “I wake up feeling grateful to be alive,” he said. “Definitely seeing Lara and the kids was the best part, but then getting that negative test, after testing positive 11 times.”
He suspects he caught Covid either at the airport in South Africa, on the first flight to Paris or at the airport in Paris, although he cannot be sure. But the frustration of having wife Lara looking after their son Jaime, seven, and four-year-old daughter Kyla while he battled for his health in a Russian Covid ward – also missing Lara’s birthday and Father’s Day – was something he could never have foreseen.
“I knew it would be in stages,” he said of his route out of Russia. “The first thing was to get negative, be healthy enough to get a negative, then get to a hotel and pack up [he still had all of his boxing gear] and get the plane to Paris and then get to South Africa.”
Then it was back to the family, but those dark, lonely days in Russia will stay with him. “I never wanted to experience those thoughts, and at times when I was breaking down I remember when I got told I had pneumonia I rolled onto my side and I felt the tears running down on to my arm as I thought I might die and never see my family again,” he said. “It was a horrible feeling.”