Anita Alvarez: The dangers of top athletes who push their limits – and beyond

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Anita Alvarez: The dangers of top athletes who push their limits - and beyond

Anita Alvarez lies unconscious on the bottom of the pool after completing her routine at the FINA World Aquatics Championships. Her knees touch the tiles, her arms are limp, her eyes are closed. We later learn that she was not breathing.

What would have happened if her coach Andrea Fuentes hadn’t noticed that the swimmer’s feet appeared paler than normal, which would have put her on high alert, and what if she hadn’t reacted in a flash by jumping in to help to save her athlete when she saw that the American was sinking instead of rising to breathe?

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

In fact, this was the second time Fuentes made a save for Alvarez. Last year, during an Olympic qualifier, she jumped into the pool 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 the practices have never gone against medical advice.

Former Spanish artistic swimmer Gemma Mengual, a three-time Olympian, described a tingling sensation on her face like she almost passed out in the pool and giving up a routine in fear of what might happen.

The coach dives into the pool to save American swimmer Anita Alvarez at the World Championships

“It’s a very demanding sport. You always went to the limit. I always went out with fear when I took part in competitions,” she told Spanish Atresmedia.

And that’s what top-class sport is all about. It’s about pushing your limits physically and mentally; in training, in competition, day after day, year after year, because that’s where standards are set, in every sport.

Synchronized swimmers may look serene and dance like a ballet in the water. They are poised, they smile, they mesmerize the crowd. Heck, there’s even music, makeup, and sequins.

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

Look beneath the surface and there are dangers. Being punched or kicked is commonplace for artistic swimmers, who perform in unison yards apart, often for up to four minutes. Standing on your head and holding your breath for long periods of time can also cause dizziness and blurred vision. In fact, concussions are a problem, according to The New York Times, in what is essentially a contact sport.

“I’ve been an athlete my whole life — in the pool for 20 years … sometimes there are small prizes to pay,” Fuentes told CNN.

“And in all sports, when you know high-level athletes, that’s part of the beauty — pushing your limits and growing from them.”

Members of the US team react as medical staff attend to Anita Alvarez.

In sport there is no greatness without sacrifice. You can’t be very, very good without sacrifice. Top athletes are the best in their field, and while they can’t all be all-time greats, they are all still the best in the world at what they do and will be the well you must possess certain qualities. Talent yes, determination for sure, but also the ability to push yourself, to live life to the max – and that’s tough.

They miss parties, refuse to go out, ruin family holidays, all for what British Cycling would call ‘marginal profits’ during its golden heyday of the last decade.

These are small tweaks that refine everything by 1% to significantly increase your overall performance; Because when the difference between success and failure is just a fraction of a second or a centimeter, every little thing counts.

For British Cycling, this has meant hiring a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chance of catching a cold, and choosing the best type of pillow and mattress to ensure each rider gets the best night’s sleep.

If you’re constantly doing that little bit extra that is your life, and then trying so hard – or rather, not knowing where the limit really is – during the competition that your well-being or even your life is in danger, maybe becomes more understandable for the layman.

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

Anita Alvarez competes before collapsing during the solo free artistic swimming final at the FINA World Championships.

That’s perhaps why athletes need to be protected, to be looked after by those who realize that victory shouldn’t come at any cost.

But how much is too much? In her statement posted to Instagram, Fuentes says artistic swimming is no different from other high-performance sports.

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

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

At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Scotland’s Callum Hawkins missed out on men’s marathon gold after collapsing and banging his head on a roadside barrier in the scorching East Coast heat with two kilometers to go.

Of course, there’s also the story of the now mythological Greek runner Pheidippides, the inspiration for the modern day marathon. Did he announce Greece’s victory over the Persians and collapse fatally after running from Marathon to Athens? It depends who you ask.

Thousands of years ago, exercise involved risk and it still does. In 2008, 11 climbers died trying to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, when an ice avalanche tore down a fixed rope the climbers were using.
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However, top athletes tend to distinguish between risk and consequence. For Alex Honnold, widely regarded as the greatest rock climber of all time, the risk of scaling vertiginous rocks without a rope is small, the consequences, which of course can be fatal, are high.

In 2017, the American became the first person to scale the 3,200-foot monolith El Capitan without 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 is this practice, the thousands of hours invested in perfecting a craft that the common man does not see. The end product is usually a flawless performance that reinforces 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 was a reminder that, although far from average, elite athletes are people too.

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