Team USA Fencer, Natalie Vie, narrates her experience traveling to Brazil for the Rio Olympic Test Games amid the threat of the Zika virus.
“Before you go to Rio you should take at least 30 minutes to research what has been going on with Zika. You may not want to go,” my coach was saying over the phone the night before I was due to head to Brazil. In the days leading up to the Olympic Test Games in Rio recently held in April, I received an email from our team doctor as well as a note from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the zika virus and its known effects and a warning fro the US Olympic Committee. My NPR One app was updating with a new Zika-related story almost daily and athletes were coming out with statements about whether or not they will attend the Games. I should note that when I say athletes, I mean primarily female athletes. That’s because when it comes to pregnancy and family planning, female athletes especially have a lot to consider. So how did I make the decision to go to Rio amidst a world health crisis?
“Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.” Hope Solo of Team USA Soccer told SI.com. She also said that she is considering not going to Rio for the Olympic Games because of the Zika outbreak in Brazil. Time reported that Race walker Maria Michta Coffey saying she and her husband had planned to conceive in Brazil after the Games but have had to alter their plans due to the threats of Zika. Runner Alysia Montano, who famously ran an 800 meter race while 8 months pregnant at the 2014 US Nationals, was quoted by Reuters saying that she is worried about traveling to Rio for the Olympics because she wants to expand her family in the near future.
I apply what other athletes have said to my life and I am not married nor am I planning on having children in the near future. But then again there is so much that is unknown about the virus and so there is an inherent risk to traveling to a country at the center of the zika crisis when we don’t know what the long term health affects can be. Combine this with the recent economic crash and the impeachment proceedings that were due to begin around the time I would be in Brazil and it seemed as though traveling to Brazil would be a recipe for disaster. So I did what any resourceful millennial would do and I assessed the situation using Rio-related geotags on Instagram. I saw pages of bikini-clad sunbathers, couples rollerblading in shorts and generally pretty normal summer activities for Rio. So I thought to myself that if that many people were still in bikinis on the beach then I would ok too. Plus, I was able to further rationalize my safety to myself because mosquitos have never seemed interested in me and I hardly ever remember being bitten in my life.
I flew into Brazil right before the Rio Olympic Test Games with the rest of the US Epee Fencing Team. While both teams were small due to its timing at the latter part of the Olympic season, the women’s epee team was disproportionately small compared to the men’s epee team. A full team is usually 24 fencers, women and men, and we had maybe 13 people there I texted a few of my teammates that had decided not to attend and most of them said that while the Zika outbreak was a factor in their decision not to attend it was not the ultimate factor. So there we were a small group of us that just landed at the airport in Rio and from the moment we stepped foot on land we couldn’t help but to make Zika jokes. “Ahh I think I got a mosquito bite! Just kidding,” someone joked as we emerged outdoors from the airport into the Rio sunshine. I could tell that my teammates had been facing some of the same dilemmas that I had. Our team doctor suggested that we bring insect repellent and a mosquito net to sleep under. Between all of us we had maybe one bottle of bug spray and zero mosquito nets. Clearly, those of my teammates that had attended were not entirely worried.
We all surveyed the situation when the team bus dropped us off at the official hotel a block away from the beach and the scene was just as I had seen on my Instagram a few days before: smiles, bikinis, açaí and sunshine. Everything as normal except that we hadn’t seen a single pregnant woman! At this point in the story I should mention that I am a huge believer in collaborative consumption. So whenever possible I avoid the sterility of most hotels. I found a rad beach house on airbnb and shared it with a teammate. We made our way to our new pad and met our host family. They were so open and welcoming and so when they asked if we had any questions we couldn’t help but to ask what was on both of our minds, if they known anyone that he been infected with Zika. “Oh yes! When I had it I was out for 5 days.” My host mother said matter-of-factly. “It’s really only a big concern if you’re pregnant and we know someone who is pregnant now and she is staying indoors,” my host said. This is actually pretty rational and I began wondering if all my worrying was mostly due to media hype?
That night just as I was falling asleep I heard a buzzing in my ear. A shot of adrenaline raced through my body and all of the worries I had been hearing from people raced through my head. “Was a mosquito trying to bite me? Am I compromising the health of my future children by deciding to come to the center of the Zika outbreak? Will I start feeling symptoms right away? Will I even be able to compete tomorrow?” My mind was going crazy. The next three nights were just like this one. I’d hear a buzzing and adrenaline would race through my body and it would take me hours to get back to bed. I’d wake up early to fence and regret not having brought a net like our team doctor suggested.
The competition was held at 2 different locations. Day 1 of the competition was at a military base in Urca. They have what I consider one of the most scenic beaches in all of Rio, which I of course posted on my Instagram. Day 2 was at the Olympic venue in Barra de Tijuca. Despite the fact that a few of the girls that were top 16 in the world didn’t show up and that the tournament was unusually small, it carried on as usual. I decided to stay a few days after the tournament was over to surf the amazing beaches. My host family had an extra surfboard for me and they took me out to a favorite surf beach for locals called Praia Prainha. I saw two sea turtles out on the waves and rode at least one great wave in. The next day I had a surf class in Barra that included a Brazilian girl and an American boy from Boston. The American boy lathered on sunscreen but no bug spray and the Brazilian girl didn’t seem to be concerned with either.
My last night in Rio was the night that I finally slept soundly. I learned that cold air keeps the mosquitos away so I turned the ac in my room on. I also discovered that the buzzing sound was coming from gnats. Although I had seen a mosquito in my room that first day, it seemed just as uninterested in me as every other mosquito that I have ever encountered. Thankfully, I came back to NYC not having sustained a single bite on my trip. Ultimately, this trip taught me that while precautions are a good idea, it’s also important to use your own discretion in these situations. Our Team Doctor and the US Olympic Committee gave us great advice by telling us to learn the facts and to make our own decisions. Every athlete faces a different set of challenges with their unique life situations. In my case, I did not and would not let the outbreak of Zika affect my decision to travel or compete in Rio.