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By Steve Breazeale
News coming out of Rio de Janeiro in the buildup to the 2016 Olympic Games has not all centered on the best athletes in the world descending upon the South American city for one of the world’s most popular sporting events. Instead, much of the discussion concerning the games has revolved around health issues, like the Zika virus, politics and safety.
Olympic sailors competing in the event will face many of these concerns head on when they enter the waters of Guanabara Bay, the games’ sailing venue. The polluted condition of the bay has been well-documented by major news outlets onsite and has drawn criticism from the sailing community.
The fear of the Zika virus, which is transmitted via mosquitos and poses a heightened risk to pregnant women, has kept several standout American athletes from competing.
San Clemente native Paris Henken, 20, and her sailing partner, Helena Scutt, qualified to represent the United States in the 49erFX sailing class and are in Brazil preparing for the Games. The duo has been making monthly trips to Rio in order to learn the currents that swirl inside the bay.
The San Clemente Times caught up with Henken via email to get her thoughts on the growing health concerns and her preparation for competing on the world’s biggest stage.
San Clemente Times: Now that the event is so close, what emotions are going through your head right now?
Paris Henken: There are definitely lots of things going through my mind now that the Games are close. I am a bit nervous as it draws closer to the first race, but honestly the nerves are normal. I am only human and you just have to learn to control what you feel and not let it distract you. But other than the nervousness I am super excited and have been working towards this goal since junior year of high school and to know it’s so close is unbelievable. We are training hard and definitely giving it our all as we get closer to the start of the Games.
SCT: Has your training regimen changed at all in recent weeks?
PH: Our training has shifted a little bit in regards to what we are focusing on. Since we for sure know we are the team that will be competing we are spending all our practice days down in Rio getting familiar with the wind and current. We are narrowing down on the aspects that we think we need to improve and so far the training has been very successful.
SCT: What are your thoughts on the condition of the racing venue in Guanabara Bay? It looks like pollution in the water is a concern among sailors there.
PH: The US Sailing Team has known of the water pollution way before it has become such a topic within the media. They have prepared not only Helena and I but the whole US Sailing Team in what to except and how to stay healthy. We support all efforts to clean up Guanabara Bay, but at this point it is a factor we can’t control.
SCT: How have you been prepared to handle the polluted waters?
PH: If there is something in the water, we just sail around it and after sailing we just wash all equipment down with fresh water. Simple things like keeping our hands washed are other ways we are staying healthy.
SCT: How much did you weigh the threat of the Zika virus before you made the final decision to compete in the Games?
PH: We are also well aware of the Zika virus, but it didn’t even cross my mind in regards to if we will compete or not. It’s a bug that can be avoided with bug spray and long sleeved shirts and pants. At this point it has been my dream to compete in the Olympics and no bug is going to stop that.