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Olympic diver facing fears of Zika while competing in Rio

RECIFE, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 04: A city worker fumigates in an effort to eradicate the mosquito which transmits the Zika virus on February 4, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Officials say as many as 100,000 people may have already been exposed to the Zika virus in Recife, which is being called the epicenter of the crisis, although most never develop symptoms. Tourists are arriving in the city for its famed Carnival celebrations which begin tomorrow. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

RECIFE, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 04: A city worker fumigates in an effort to eradicate the mosquito which transmits the Zika virus on February 4, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Officials say as many as 100,000 people may have already been exposed to the Zika virus in Recife, which is being called the epicenter of the crisis, although most never develop symptoms. Tourists are arriving in the city for its famed Carnival celebrations which begin tomorrow. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)  (2016 Getty Images)

Abby Johnston is not only an Olympic diving silver medallist, she's also a second-year medical student who's been studying Zika from afar.

Now she's up close to it in Rio de Janeiro for an Olympic qualifying event, and she's ambivalent about being at the epicenter of the mosquito-borne virus that is possibly linked to an increase in a rare birth defect in Brazil.

"It's a little unnerving not knowing the exact long-term ramifications of the Zika virus, but I'm trying not to worry about that right now," Johnston told The Associated Press.

Johnston took silver in the London Games, and expects to qualify for Rio, which opens on Aug. 5. She's studying at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and of child-bearing age — the group most at risk from Zika.

"I'm hoping they'll have more answers by the time I do plan on having kids," she said.
Johnston said she's also learned that Zika could be "detrimental of athletic performance."

"That's really not what you would want, particularly for something you have trained your whole life for. To think that that could be taken away by a virus is pretty scary."

Johnston is among 217 divers from 46 countries in the week-long event which opened on Friday. They are competing in a renovated, open-air venue that borders a polluted lagoon, and Rio Olympic organizers say they are doing all they can to control the mosquitoes by spraying and removing standing water.

"The best I can do, and any other athlete that's here can do, is use a lot of bug spray and just hope for the best," Johnston said.

Dr. David M. Harsha, the team doctor for the Americans, said he'd been preparing for Rio for more than a month.

"We're just planning like we could be exposed (to Zika) — and be ready," he said.
The venue looked like a military camp on Friday.

This is the first test event for the Olympics at which full security is deployed, with 300 well-armed soldiers and police patrolling at the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca, which will be the heart of Rio's games.

Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA, said Rio organizers met this week with divers, and handed out mosquito repellent and advice.

"We've taken all the necessary measures and informed the athletes so they know what is happening," Marculescu told AP. "Hopefully, at the end of the day everything will be OK. But nature is nature."

Marculescu and various team officials said divers have been told to wear light colors, cover up when possible, and use the repellent.

Johnston said some of the advice seems ineffective. She said the repellent washed off in the water, and it was difficult to avoid mosquitoes in an outdoor venue near water.
"I've had a few bites here," she said.

FINA asked organizers to put a roof on the outdoor venue and complained openly about it to Mayor Eduardo Paes. The city declined to spend the money and said the federation was too demanding.

In a letter to the mayor from FINA, obtained five months ago by AP, the swim body said conditions like those at the diving venue "will negatively affect the safety conditions and the level of performances of our athletes."

Marculescu acknowledged the letter but said FINA had to be satisfied with what the organizers provided.

"It's not a matter anymore to complain, it a matter now to do the best event possible," Marculescu said. "Evidently, it's much better if you have it indoors, but we have to run the best possible event in these conditions."

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