Anita Alvarez: The dangers of elite athletes who push themselves to the limit – and beyond

Anita Alvarez lies unconscious at the bottom of the pool after finishing her routine at the FINA World Aquatics Championships. His knees touch the tiles, his arms are limp, his eyes are closed. Later, we learn that she was not breathing.

What if her coach, Andrea Fuentes, hadn’t noticed that the swimmer’s feet looked paler than normal, putting her on high alert, and what if she didn’t? hadn’t reacted like lightning jumping to save her athlete when she saw that the American was sinking instead of coming up to breathe?

Perhaps for those who never watch artistic swimming, or only do it every four years at the Olympics, the most amazing thing is to hear those involved in the sport talk about how what is happened to Alvarez in Budapest is a risk that comes with sport. .

Indeed, it was the second time that Fuentes saved Alvarez. Last year she jumped into the pool during an Olympic qualifying event to get the 25-year-old to safety.

Fuentes told CNN this week that swimmers routinely hold their breath for long periods of time to improve their lung capacity, but said such practices were never against medical advice.

Former Spanish artistic swimmer Gemma Mengual, a three-time Olympian, described feeling a tingling sensation in her face, nearly fainting in the pool and abandoning a routine in fear of what might happen.

“It’s a very demanding sport. You always went to the limit. I was always scared when I competed,” she told Atresmedia in Spain.

And that is, in essence, what elite sport is. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit, physically and mentally; in training, in competition, day after day, year after year, because that’s where the bar has been set, in all sports.

Synchronized swimmers can look serene, dancing in the water. They are posed, they smile, they charm the crowds. Heck, there’s even music, makeup, and glitter.

It all seems effortless, but that’s because those who excel always make it seem that way. This does not mean that there is no pain before, during or after.

Look below the surface and there are dangers. Getting hit or kicked is common for artistic swimmers who perform in unison within a few feet of each other, often for up to four minutes. Playing upside down and holding your breath for long periods of time can also cause dizziness and blurred vision. Concussion is even a problem, as The New York Times reports, in what is essentially a contact sport.

“I’ve been an athlete all my life — 20 years in the pool … sometimes there’s little price it’s okay to pay,” Fuentes told CNN.

“And in all sports, if you know top athletes, that’s part of the beauty – pushing your limits and growing out of them.”

Team USA members react as Anita Alvarez is taken care of by medical personnel.

In sport, there is no greatness without sacrifice. There is no being very, very good without sacrifice. Elite athletes are the best at their craft, and while they may not all be the best of all time, they are still the best in the world at what they do, and to be this good you must possess certain characteristics. Talent, yes, determination, of course, but also the ability to surpass oneself, to live one’s life to the extreme, and that’s hard.

They miss parties, turn down nights out, spoil family holidays, all for what British Cycling, at its golden peak of the last decade, would describe as “marginal gains”.

That is, small improvements, refining everything by 1%, to dramatically increase your overall performance; because when the difference between success and failure is a fraction of a second or an inch, every little thing matters.

For British Cycling, that meant hiring a surgeon to teach every cyclist how best to wash their hands to reduce the risk of catching a cold and choosing the best kind of pillow and mattress so that every cyclist could have the best night’s sleep.

When you constantly do that little extra is your life, and then you push it to such an extreme – or more accurately, don’t know where the limit is – during competition so that your well-being, even your life, is put endangered, perhaps becomes more understandable to the layman.

In a 2012 column in England’s The Guardian, triathlete Lesley Paterson wrote, “Every top athlete is a little crazy, a little obsessive, a lot selfish and certainly not quite the norm.”

Anita Alvarez competes before collapsing in the artistic swimming solo freestyle final at the FINA World Championships.

This is perhaps why athletes must be protected, supported by those who realize that victory does not have to be at any price.

But how much is it? In his statement posted on Instagram, Fuentes says artistic swimming is no different from other high endurance sports.

“We’ve all seen images where some athletes don’t reach the finish line and others help them get there,” she said.

And we have. Who could forget watching footage of British triathlete Alistair Brownlee stopping to help his struggling brother and almost carrying him before throwing him over the finish line?

At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Scotsman Callum Hawkins missed out on men’s marathon gold after collapsing and hitting his head against a roadside barrier, two kilometers from the end in the heat scorching east coast.

There is also, of course, the story of the now mythologized Greek runner Pheidippides, the inspiration of the modern marathon. Did he herald Greece’s victory over the Persians and collapse to death after running from Marathon to Athens? It depends who you ask.

Thousands of years ago, sport involved risk, and it still does. In 2008, 11 mountaineers died while attempting to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when an ice avalanche toppled a fixed rope the climbers were using.
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But elite athletes tend to differentiate between risk and consequence. For Alex Honnold, widely regarded as the greatest rock climber of all time, the risk of climbing dizzying boulders without a rope is low, the consequence, which of course could be death, high.

In 2017, the American became the first person to scale the 3,200ft El Capitan monolith without any ropes, a skill known as free soloing. Attempting the feat was, he told CNN a few years ago, “business as usual” and built on decades of practice.

And it’s this practice, the thousands of hours spent perfecting a craft, that the average person doesn’t see. The end product is usually a flawless performance, enhancing the athlete’s status as an otherworldly being, which is why a dramatic fall or rescue grabs headlines around the world.

What happened in Budapest this week reminded us that elite athletes, while far from average, are also human.


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