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The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon is an appropriately L-shaped pool in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. From the famed Corcovado mountain above, the illustrious Christ the Redeemer statue has a front-row seat of the lagoon, connected to the Atlantic Ocean. The setting is Rio through and through beautiful and troubled.
The lagoon is one of several waterways that remain under a watchful eye as the Summer Olympic Games arrive in Rio this week. Though magnificent on the surface, it's what lies beneath that has caused so much concern, going back to virtually the day Rio won the bid for the 2016 Summer Games.
Water pollution around Rio remains a "hot-button issue," Park City rower Devery Karz said.
The first-time Olympian will go for a medal on the waves of that lagoon, which is just one of the city's water venues wrought with debris, trash, disease and emerging bacteria. The 28-year-old graduate of Park City High School and Oregon State University will represent the U.S. rowing team in the women's lightweight double sculls event alongside partner Kate Bertko. Karz said water quality is clearly an issue the U.S. Olympic Committee not to mention the world's top on-water athletes has had to watch intently.
The world was put on further notice last summer, when 13 American rowers came down with a stomach illness during the World Junior Rowing Championships while competing in the lagoon in a trial run for these Games, now just a few days away.
Looking for a culprit? Easy. The bacteria and viruses swirling around in the venue.
Karz is doing her best to take a glass-half-full approach before her first Olympiad. At last year's World Championships in France, she came down with a serious bout of food poisoning at the most inopportune time, but dealt with it.
"It's hard, because every country has its own issues you can get sick in any country," she said. "You have to hedge your bets and kind of prepare for everything."
Preparations for dealing with such unique and troubling circumstances began several months ago. Whether it's the rowers or canoe sprint athletes in the lagoon or the sailors in the Guanabara Bay, athletes were briefed earlier this year about how to combat the viruses and bacteria in the water. American single sculls rower Gevvie Stone said that her checklist includes plastic bags for water bottles on board. Extensive bleaching of the handles of her oars is a must after competition runs.
How often have Olympians had to take such precautions to avoid contracting what researchers are calling "super bacteria" on an event course? Unanswerable at the moment. Seven years ago when Brazil was awarded this Olympics, state government ensured 80 percent of the sewage dumped in the city's waterways would be treated in time. It was at 12 percent in 2009, Mario Andrada, spokesman for the Rio Games, said earlier this year.
It's now a virtual lock that the guaranteed 80 percent will not be reached.
An ESPN special report broadcast in February concluded that 100 tons of trash is dumped into Guanabara Bay on a daily basis. More than 150,000 gallons of raw sewage spills in every single minute.
The numbers are both staggering and disturbing. Neil Fishman, an infectious disease specialist who also serves as the associate chief medical officer at the University of Pennsylvania, said the biggest risks for athletes competing in the open-water events will be contracting various diseases drifting around, such as rotavirus, which causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.
"I've seen reports that they will stop dumping sewage during the events and that will lower the concentration of risk," Fishman explained. "But it's just not enough time to eliminate the risk. Short of trying to control breathing so that you're not ingesting water or at least ingesting minimal amounts of water, I don't think there's anything you can do."
Researchers have also isolated strands of super bacteria also known as multi-drug resistant organisms. And Fishman believes that antibiotics won't serve as an immediate fix for those who happen to fall ill.
"It's nearly impossible to choose a drug that's going to be able to kill all of the germs that people will be exposed to," he said. "You get into a situation where you have to take combinations of drugs that end up having significant toxicity in of themselves, and in the end, will probably just select for more-resistant germs."
Some athletes set to compete amid the trash and floating human waste are just ready to move on. Practice for various rowing competitions will begin on Thursday, the day before the opening ceremonies. Megan Kalmoe, a teammate of both Karz and Stone, wrote a somewhat scathing op-ed piece for The Guardian on Tuesday the day she departed for Rio.
The 32-year-old, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, writes of her lifelong dream to vie for Olympic medals, before transitioning to, "all you want to do is talk about [expletive] in the water." Her request to those fixated on the sewage floating in Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon or Guanabara Bay or on the shores of Copacabana Beach?
"Stop trying to ruin the Olympics for us."
She added: "If you are that insecure about where we stand, America, let me be the one to say it. I'll say it, if it will allay your fears and put some of these issues to rest: I will row through [expletive] for you, America," Kalmoe wrote.
The Rio Games have had such a rough go in terms of finding positives that issues such as the water quality have clearly become a divisive topic for the athletes.
And it's clear that these open-water athletes will row or paddle or swim through anything human waste, trash and other unspeakable things for a shot at a medal. They're boarding planes to Brazil. They're checking into the Olympic Village. They're ready in spite of the raw deal and sewage they've been dealt.
"You put eight years into a goal and you're going to go regardless of what's down there," Karz said. "I just have to put my faith in the USOC and the governing body that they'll take the best precautions to keep the athletes healthy while we're down there."
Rio's open-water events
Events in heavily polluted water:
Aug 6-12 • Rowing, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon
Aug. 7-11 • Kayaking, Whitewater Stadium
Aug. 8-17 • Sailing, Guanabara Bay
Aug. 15-20 • Canoe sprint, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon
Aug. 15-16 • Marathon swimming, Copacabana Beach
Aug. 18-20 • Triathlon, Copacabana Beach