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US Athletes Focus on Competition, Despite Olympic Worries


The countdown is under way to the Summer Olympics, which will start on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro.

U.S. athletes who met this week with reporters in California said they are focused on the competition, despite health concerns, including Zika virus, which is spreading in Brazil. The mosquito-borne virus causes mild infections in most people, but poses a risk to unborn babies. It has been linked to microcephaly, a condition in which children are born with abnormally small heads, and other defects.

The World Health Organization has urged pregnant women to avoid travel to areas where the Zika virus is spreading, including Brazil, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said pregnant women should consider not going to the Olympics.

United States' goalkeeper Hope Solo (1) poses with the golden glove award after the SheBelieves Cup, March 9, 2016, in Boca Raton, Florida.

United States' goalkeeper Hope Solo (1) poses with the golden glove award after the SheBelieves Cup, March 9, 2016, in Boca Raton, Florida.

U.S. women's soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo said if she had to make the decision now, she would not go to Rio.

At the Team USA media summit, Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long said each Olympic site has its challenges “and this is just another thing out of my control. And I'm going to Rio to compete,” she said.

The Paralympics, for athletes with physical disabilities, will follow the Olympics and start September 7.

Rio Olympics organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada says the games will take place during winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when mosquito-borne infections are less likely. He said precautions can reduce the risk, including wearing long sleeves.

"Keep the windows closed during the evenings, use the air conditioning, use repellents whenever you're competing outside,” he said.

Polluted waters are a concern to canoers, rowers and open water swimmers, but sailing competitor Briana Provancha says her team has made eight visits to Brazil and spent many days on the water.

“We're prepared,” she said, adding that the athletes are “trying really hard to not make that a distraction.”

Her teammate, Annie Haeger, says Brazilians face higher risks than athletes.

“We’re going to be down there for a week, and then we go back to our homes,” she said. “And people down there in Rio are actually the people that we actually should be concerned about because they’re dealing with that water every single day.”

For swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, the Olympics are too good to be missed.

“It's the pinnacle of our sport,' she said. “It's a once every four-year thing and you get to do it with the best athletes in the world in every sport.”

For Brazil, the road to Rio has been rocky. Construction on some Olympic venues has been plagued with problems, but spokesman Andrada said all should be ready for the games. The only delay announced so far is for a cycling test event initially planned for March at the velodrome and postponed for six weeks.

Track and field athlete LaShawn Merritt poses for photos at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit March 8, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California.

Track and field athlete LaShawn Merritt poses for photos at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit March 8, 2016, in Beverly Hills, California.

Gold medal-winning sprinter LaShawn Merritt says his personal road to Rio has also been uneven. He took first place in the 400 meters in 2008 in Beijing, but a torn hamstring kept him from competing in 2012 in London.

“I'm just ready to get back to the Olympic Games,” he said, “where everyone's watching, the lights are on, the lights are bright, I'm 110 percent prepared, and going out and execute. That's what I'm looking forward to.”

These athletes say they are focused on their personal challenges more than the challenges of the venue. Paralympic archer Matt Stutzman was born without arms. He uses his feet and teeth to control his bow and arrow, and says the secret to success is concentration.

“Blocking people out, not letting people get into my head, just being me and doing my thing. If I can remember to do all that stuff, I feel pretty confident that I can win a gold medal.”

For some of these athletes, determination and discipline will pay off in Rio.

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