Finnish para-triathlete Liisa Lilja says she won't swim in Rio de Janeiro until the day of her race, out of fears the contaminated water will make her too sick to compete.
She makes the comments on today's episode of Newsmakers, HSTV's weekly English-language current affairs show.
"We had a test event in Rio last August, but I didn't race there. Many athletes got sick. So I have decided not to swim in the ocean, before the race, just to be sure not to get sick", she says.
Rio de Janeiro's organising committee have faced repeated criticism over the water quality in Guanabara Bay, where a 2015 investigation by The Associated Press revealed high levels of viruses, and bacteria from human sewage. Tests showed similar results at other water sports venues, including Copacabana Beach where the triathlon will be staged. Olympic organisers had promised to clean up Rio's waterways - a dumping ground for trash and raw sewage - as part of their bid to host the games but there has been little progress.
Although she won't be swimming in the ocean before her race, Lilja has studied the triathlon route which she says is relatively flat and should be fast. Athletes will also get to familiarise themselves with the course a few days before the event takes place.
"I am prepared for everything", she says.
Lilja is a relative newcomer to triathlon, having taken up the event only two years ago. In that time, she has had a meteoric rise in the rankings, clinching a European Championship silver medal, and somewhat unexpectedly finding herself one of the top ten para-triathletes in the world. Her goal had initially been to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"Sport has always been a big part of my life. When I was non-disabled I loved running. Still love running. I think running is very addictive sport [...] the more you run, the more you enjoy", she says.
The Pori native was diagnosed with bone cancer aged eight, and spent two years in hospital for treatment. Her right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
"And back home, two arms and one leg left", she says, pragmatically. "I was very pleased with that [outcome]".
Liisa's road to Rio began when German prosthetics manufacturer Otto Bock became a sponsor, which enabled her to get a specialist running blade fitted. She successfully made the transition from being a talented disability swimmer, to an aspiring triathlete.
"Money is one big thing because para-triathlon is very expensive. I had no chance to start triathlon without [sponsors]", she says. Her everyday prosthetic leg costs around €10,000, while her bike costs approximately €7,000 and the prosthetic blade for racing could cost as much as €50,000.
Liisa is also supported by the Finnish Paralympic Committee and the Finnish Triathlon Association.
To get ready for the Olympics, the 23-year old spends most of her time training. "I train about 20 to 24 hours per week [...] 20 to 30km swimming per week and many hours on the bike, in the saddle".
But it's not all gone to plan. A crash at the beginning of June left her face bloodied and swollen, and requiring stitches. "I was racing in Kuusijärvi, my training race, and I crashed with my bike but nothing too bad". One week later and the swelling has gone down, the bruising receded, and the last of the stitches will soon be removed before she flies to France for a training camp and World Cup race. She'll also compete at the World Championships in Rotterdam at the end of July before heading to the Olympics.
The foreign training helps get Liisa accustomed to the tropical weather conditions she will face in Brazil. "I have spent ten weeks in Spain last winter", she says. "And I'm going back to Spain about two weeks before travelling to Rio, so hopefully I am used to the heat".
"I cannot affect the weather", she explains "so I will not focus on that too much".
Triathlon is being included for the first time as a paralympic sport in Rio de Janeiro. There will be ten athletes in Liisa's class and while she is currently ranked 5th in the world, her biggest competitors are from the USA:
"I think there is going to be about five or six athletes who have a chance to win the games, and hopefully I am one of them" says Liisa.
Staged over 12 days in September, the Paralympics mean infrastructure upgrades in Rio de Janeiro, including for local residents, fans and athletes with disabilities. Liisa says that some countries she visits are highly prepared when it comes to disability access, and cites the UK as one of the best.
But she says attitudes towards disabled athletes could change - including here in Finland.
"When I first went to swimming hall in Märsky, everyone was staring at me", she says.
"In Finland we have a lot to do yet [...] I have trained all my life with non-disabled athletes, and I am one of them. We are top athletes. We train well, hard, to get to Rio [...] We are not weird people. We are just human beings".
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