What Haley Anderson Wants Olympics Fans To Be Considering (Hint: It's Not The Water In Rio)

With the Summer Olympics just weeks away, athletes around the world are preparing for Rio de Janeiro. Yet stories of their daring, determination, training, and sheer strength are largely being lost in a sea of headlines dominated by Rio's unfulfilled promises. Talk over the city's readiness seems to have moved well beyond the media's normal pre-Games chorus of worries, and Olympic swimmer Haley Anderson is wondering if potential pollution has made us forget what the Olympics are really about.

Debate over the dangers of Rio's polluted water, the threat of the Zika virus, and recent political upheaval in Brazil are, in many ways, overshadowing the accomplishments of 2016 Olympians, according to the 24-year-old Olympic silver medalist.

It's easy to see where Anderson is coming from. Until now, much of the media has seemed largely deaf to athletes' personal narratives of overcoming adversity and defying the odds through hard work. Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke reported that athletes eager to discuss strategy and training at a U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in March were instead pepper by reporters with questions about Zika, contaminated water, the possibility of contracting a stomach illness, etc.

Anderson is one of many Olympic athletes headed to Rio with an inspiring story of perseverance and courage which has yet to be fully told. The American competition swimmer, a virtual underdog at the time, came shockingly close to winning gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Anderson clocked in four-tenths of a second behind Eva Risztov of Hungary to take home the silver medal in the 10-kilometer open water event after sprinting from fourth in the pack near the end of the race. It's a finish that has stayed with Anderson. "That's definitely what has kept me going," she tells Bustle. "Getting a silver by that close, it's definitely been the biggest motivating factor [for] improving on that finish and going for gold this time."

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Anderson will head to Rio to compete in her second Olympic Games this summer and hopes to nab the gold medal she missed out on in 2012. She's also shooting to be the first U.S. athlete to compete in both pool and open water events at the Olympic Games, a possibility that has the swimmer buzzing with excitement. "No one else in the United States has done that, so that's definitely been my goal these past few years," she says.

But Anderson wishes athletes were getting more of the media's attention than what reports on water quality analysis and Zika virus cases are garnering. "It's kind of a bummer that this Olympics is being turned into everything but the athletes and the sport," Anderson says. "We're talking about everything else but that."

In 2014, the Associated Press obtained a letter in which Rio's State Environment Secretary, Carlos Francisco Portinho, acknowledged that Brazil would need more than a decade to fulfill its initial commitment to significantly reduce pollution in Guanabara Bay, where Olympic sailing events will be held. In placing a bid to host the Olympics back in 2009, the city vowed to cut pollution into the bay by 80 percent in preparations for the Games, "setting a new standard of water quality preservation for the next generations."

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Although the city has made dramatic gains in treating raw sewage being dumped into the bay, it will ultimately fall short of its original goal. Mario Andrada, communications director for the Rio Games, claimed that just 12 percent of sewage was treated when Brazil made its Olympic bid in 2009. In March, Andrada reported 60.2 percent was being treated, and estimated the number would be closer to 65 percent when the games kick off in early August.

It isn't just Guanabara Bay that has raised concerns, however. Viral testing by the AP found that not one of Rio's water venues were "safe for swimming or boating, according to global water experts ... The concentrations of [active and infectious human adenoviruses] in all tests were roughly equivalent to that seen in raw sewage — even at one of the least-polluted areas tested, the Copacabana Beach." It's at Copacabana Beach where Anderson will attempt to improve on her 2012 race time in the 10km open water event.

She is determined to swim for a gold medal this August, and says, "I don't have a concern for the water quality." She cites her own experience training in Rio ahead of the Games as reason enough for clearing her mind. "I was down there in January. I swam in the water at that time, so there's really no concern for me on that end."

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Rio won't be the first time Anderson has had to contend with contaminated water. In 2014, she won the Pan Pacific Championships open water 10km race after the event was postponed and moved from Australia's Gold Coast to Hawaii due to "poor water quality." Heavy rains ahead of the event reportedly "caused increased pollution," leading to test results that "were not consistent with the water quality levels required to stage a major international open water competition," according to Swimming Australia CEO Mark Anderson.

Anderson appeared largely unfazed by contamination concerns even then, choosing instead to focus all her energy on the race. "The whole situation was pretty nuts," she told NBC News at the time. "If anybody can handle it, it's open-water swimmers. We're always at the whim of nature."

But others aren't as quick to dismiss concerns over polluted waters. Famed swimmer Lynne Cox urged the International Olympic Committee to move this year's open-water swimming events — including Anderson's 10km swim — to cleaner, safer waters in an op-ed published by the New York Times in early May. "[Olympic athletes] deserve a chance to compete where the water won't hurt them," she wrote, citing her experience competing in the polluted waters of the Nile River. "Swimming through sewage, rotting rats, and dead dogs, I struggled to finish the race. I didn't want to stop because I was representing the United States, but after 15 miles, I nearly passed out. In the emergency room, I was told I was extremely dehydrated and that I could have died."

In August of last year, 13 U.S. rowers fell ill, with reports of vomiting and diarrhea, during the World Junior Rowing Championships in Rio de Janeiro. The team's doctor suspected it was exposure to Rodrigo de Freitas Lake's polluted water, but could not rule out food poisoning, as four members of the team's coaching staff also fell ill.


Although Anderson doesn't dismiss the seriousness of the Zika outbreak or monitoring water quality levels to ensure athlete's safety, she seems almost crestfallen at the extent to which the issues have come to overshadow many of the athletic accomplishments brought forth by the games. "Discussion of all that negative stuff outweighs all the athletics, which is what [the Olympics] is supposed to be about," she tells Bustle. "It's about all these athletes coming together from all these different countries, and right now it's being turned into all these different health hazards or safety factors in terms of politics."

For now, at least, Anderson is striving to keep her head in the game by not letting factors beyond her control psych her out ahead of her event.

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Olympics begin on August 5.