Would You Swim in Filthy Water?



This is what the water venues for the open water swim events in this year’s Olympics looked like last year. Would you swim in that filthy water? What if an Olympic medal was on the line?

About two years ago I went to a local triathlon/bike shop in northern Virginia to hear Lynne Cox speak. For the uninitiated, Lynne Cox is an incredible swimmer with several world-firsts in her kit bag. She was the first to swim from the U.S. to the Soviet Union, and yes, that means in the Bering Strait. She also twice set the record for a crossing of the English Channel. Not in the women’s group but set the record for men and women. She swam (I think she was the first) in the seas around Antarctica where the water actually gets below freezing (but remains liquid…it’s science, dear reader(s)).

During her speech she spoke of health, and particularly about open water swimmers swimming in polluted waters. She told all of us assembled about a marathon swim she competed in in Egypt. The swim was in the Nile and she’d been training in the Nile for a while leading up to the race. She wasn’t feeling too well about 15 miles into the race when she stroked and her hand sunk into something soft. It was a dead dog floating in the river. She passed out and had to be pulled from the water by her support team. She woke up some time later in hospital. She’d been severely dehydrated from dysentery.

Lynne has written an article calling to task the Olympic organizers in Brazil. The very same organizers who promised, in 2009 when they won the bid to host, that they’d clean up the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay and Copacabana Beach. Lynne is not the only person to write about the disgusting waters around Rio. The NYT, besides publishing Lynne’s recent article, has already brought attention to this issue. So have the yachting people. Same with the rowing and kayaking/canoeing folks. And plenty of other sources. The AP commissioned a couple doctors/scientists to test the waters at the Olympic venues and their findings are not pretty, even 1300 meters offshore. (Anyone want to swim in water teeming with “disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe”?)


In 2012, I met a new co-worker in DC. I noticed her Olympics ring necklace, and her name did kinda sound familiar. Turns out she was 2004 Athens Olympics USA team member Kalyn Robinson (née Keller), who finished fourth in the 800m with a time of 8:26.97, only off third by 36/100 of a second!

Anyway, Kalyn’s important here because of her history in open water. Even before the Athens Games, she was an open water star. She was the U.S. champion in the 5K event at the age of 15! She was also the U.S.’s first ever medalist in the 25K in 2007. She had a bright future, and with the 10K marathon swim becoming an Olympic event in Beijing, she was looking at a shot of going to her second Olympics.


All that changed in the 2007 Pan-Am games in, you guessed it, Rio. She and another Olympic calibre U.S. swimmer got terribly sick after competing in the water of Copacabana beach. Shortly after that, Kalyn was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease where the body’s own immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract possibly directed at microbial antigens. Crohn’s Disease has a genetic component, certainly, but it is also known to begin after gastroenteritis, or infectious diarrhea. Kalyn suspects she contracted Crohn’s as a result of her illness after the Pan-Am Games in 2007, and she’s promised to never, ever, swim in those waters again.  She is worried for our swimmers this year.

Sure, there are those who say it is safe. Those who have swum in the waters in and around Rio with no ill effects. But science doesn’t lie. Those AP scientists found dangerous levels of bacteria and viruses, both of which cannot be removed from the competition waters by dip nets.

rio dip nets

So dear reader(s), I ask that you read some (or all) of the articles I’ve linked here. At the very least, I ask that you read Lynne’s article, and comment on it at the Swimming World Magazine link here. Let’s keep our swimmers, kayakers, rowers, canoeists and sailors safe this year so they can bring home the Gold!

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