Anita Alvarez lies unconscious at the bottom of the pool after finishing her performance at the FINA World Championships. Her knees touch the tiles, her hands 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 legs seemed paler than usual, putting her on high alert, and that if she hadn’t reacted at lightning speed by jumping to save her swimmer, when she saw that an American was sinking instead of rising to breathe?
Perhaps for those who never watch competitive swimming, or who only do so once every four years at the Olympics, it will be most surprising to hear people involved in the sport talking about how what happened to Alvarez in Budapest has to do with risk associated with sports. .
Indeed, this was the second time Fuentes had saved Alvarez. Last year, she jumped into the pool during Olympic qualifying to get the 25-year-old to safety.
Fuentes told CNN this week that swimmers regularly hold their breath for extended periods to improve lung capacity, but added that the practice has never been against medical advice.
Former Spaniard and skilful swimmer Gemma Mengual, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, described feeling a tingle on her face, nearly passed out in the pool, and quit the program out of fear of what might happen.
“It’s a very demanding sport. You have always pushed yourself to the limit. I have always entered competitions in fear,” she told the Spanish Atresmedia.
And this, in fact, is what concerns elite sports. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit, physically and mentally; in training, in competition, day after day, year after year, because this is where the bar is set in every sport.
Synchronized swimmers can look serene as they ballet dance in the water. They are poised, they smile, they captivate the crowd. Heck, there’s even music, makeup, and glitter.
It all looks easy, but that’s because those who succeed always do it. This does not mean that there is no pain before, during, or after.
“I’ve been an athlete all my life – 20 years in the pool… sometimes there’s a small price to pay,” Fuentes told CNN.
“And in all sports, if you know any high-performing athletes, that’s part of the beauty of pushing your limits and growing out of them.”
There is no greatness in sport without sacrifice. You can’t be very, very good without sacrifice. Elite athletes are the best in the business and while they may not all be the greatest of all time, they are all still the best in the world at what they do and to be what well, you must have certain characteristics. Talent, yes, determination, of course, but also the ability to push yourself, to live life to the extreme – and that’s hard.
They’re skipping parties, dropping parties, ruining family vacations, all because of what British Cycling, during its golden heyday of the last decade, would call “marginal profits.”
That is, small improvements that improve everything by 1% to significantly increase your overall performance; because when the difference between success and failure is a fraction of a second or a centimeter, every little thing counts.
For British Cycling, this meant hiring a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chance of catching a cold, and choose the best type of pillow and mattress so that each rider can get a better night’s sleep.
When constantly doing something more is your life, then pushing yourself to such an extreme – or more appropriately, not knowing where the limit really is – during a competition that your well-being or even your life is in danger, perhaps becomes more understandable to the layman.
In a 2012 column in the English Guardian, triathlete Leslie Paterson wrote: “Every top athlete is a little crazy, a little obsessive, a lot selfish and certainly not quite the norm.”
Perhaps that is why athletes need to be protected, to be cared for by those who understand that victory should not be achieved at any cost.
“We have all seen footage of some athletes not reaching the finish line, while others help them get there,” she said.
At the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Scotsman Callum Hawkins missed out on gold in the men’s marathon after he passed out and hit his head on a roadside barrier two kilometers from the end in the scorching heat of the east coast.
There is also, of course, the tale of the now-mythologized Greek runner Pheidippides, inspired by the modern marathon. Did he announce the victory of Greece over the Persians, and did he perish after fleeing from Marathon to Athens? It depends who you ask.
But elite athletes tend to distinguish between risk and consequences. For Alex Honnold, widely regarded as the greatest rock climber of all time, the risk of climbing dizzying cliffs without a rope is low, the consequences, which can lead to death, of course, are high.
In 2017, an American became the first person to climb the 3,200-foot El Capitan monolith without any ropes, a skill known as free soloing. Attempting the feat, he told CNN a few years ago, was “routine” and based on decades of practice.
And it is this practice, thousands of hours spent on perfecting the craft, that the average person does not see. The end result is usually a flawless performance that elevates the athlete’s status as an otherworldly being, so a dramatic fall or rescue makes headlines around the world.
What happened in Budapest this week was a reminder that elite athletes, while far from average, are human too.