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U.S. open-water swimmers concerned about Olympic venue

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ATLANTA (AP) — Haley Anderson has been through this before.

In the lead-up to the Rio Olympics, all the talk about open-water swimming focused on the conditions rather than the competition.

Now, it’s happening again with the Tokyo Games less than a year away.

This time, there is concern about the potentially dangerous heat.

For athletes such as Anderson and U.S. teammate Jordan Wilimovsky, it’s all rather frustrating. The Olympics is the one chance for their obscure sport to really shine. Instead, they’re being asked whether it should be moved to a cooler location.

“It’s been really frustrating,” Anderson said Thursday night after competing in the U.S. Open, which is being held at Georgia Tech. “No one wants to know how we’re doing, how we’re preparing. It’s all about the conditions.”

Not that she’s complaining about the focus on safety.

“We need to talk about it,” Anderson said. “I’m glad people are starting to speak out and hopefully it will get people moving, because there’s no Plan B. There should always be a Plan B for any race.”

Wilimovksy remembered the 2016 competition being overshadowed by the severe pollution at Rio’s Copacabana Beach.

“It’s a little annoying that it’s come up again four years later,” he said.

Anderson competed at a test event in Tokyo Bay this past August, when sweltering conditions provided a sobering preview of what the swimmers will face next summer.

She dropped out less than a quarter of a way through the 10km race, feeling it just wasn’t safe enough to press on.

“I wasn’t comfortable,” said Anderson, a silver medalist at the 2012 London Games who already has qualified for her third Olympics. “It was warm water, warm air. One of their solutions was moving it earlier (in the day), but it doesn’t cool off that much.”

Fearing Tokyo’s blistering summer heat, the International Olympic Committee already ordered the marathon and race-walking events moved to Sapporo in northern Japan. Local organizers bristled over the decision, saying it was forced on them by the IOC and deprived the city of one of its glamour events.

Now attention has turned to open water, especially in light of very warm water temperatures recorded this past summer at the course known as “Odaiba Marine Park.”

“We already have to deal with a lot of different conditions, which I like,” Anderson said. “That’s what makes open water interesting and fun. That’s what drew me to it. But there’s a point to where it’s dangerous.”

One day, the water temperature climbed to 86.9 Fahrenheit at the Olympic venue — just under the limit of 87.8 set by swimming’s world governing body FINA. The temperatures were consistently in the 84-86 range.

There also are concerns about water quality, most notably E. coli bacteria. There are filters to help deal with the issue, but heavy rainfall exacerbates the problem.

“Hopefully they’re able to figure it out at the venue that they have,” said Wilimovsky, who will be competing in his second Olympics after finishing fifth in Rio. “Odaiba looked really cool when we were there for the site visit.”

When Anderson was asked whether the open-water races should be moved to a different location, she didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” Anderson said. “I would love to see some options. It’s hard, because as an athlete you don’t get to choose where you race. But I just want somewhere that’s safer.”

USA Swimming officials have quietly lobbied to move the Olympic events to a lake course at the base of Mount Fuji, which would provide a striking backdrop. But Tokyo organizers have been adamant that no more events be shifted out of the city. It seems highly unlikely the IOC would try to impose another venue change at this late date.

This figures to remain a contentious issue, especially for a U.S. team that hasn’t forgotten losing one of its own.

In 2010, hot water temperatures were linked to the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen during a distance swim in the United Arab Emirates. The autopsy concluded that he died from drowning and heat exhaustion, with the possibility of a heart abnormality.

It was the first competitive death in FINA’s history, putting severe pressure on the governing body to improve safety standards.

“It’s always on our minds,” Anderson said. “Fran was always the biggest supporter of athlete safety. The biggest. That’s what he instilled in us. It’s frustrating that we’re dealing with the same issues. There have been multiple races that I’ve pulled out of because I didn’t feel safe.”

In 2016, the open-water races went on as scheduled at Copacabana. No one reported any health issues afterward.

“Instead of showcasing what open-water swimming’s about, all the questions were, ‘How do you feel about racing in dirty water?’” Wilimovsky recalled. “It turned out fine. The race was awesome. It’s just annoying that (water quality) was kind of hanging over it.”

He is confident that no one will be in harm’s way at the next Olympics.

“I trust the U.S. is not going to make us race or put us in a position to race where the water’s unsafe,” he said.

If that’s not the case, Anderson isn’t sure what she’ll do.

It’s one thing to drop out of a test event. It’s a whole different issue when an Olympic medal is on the line.

“Swimming is once every four years. It’s not like the NBA and other sports, where you have a huge event every year,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to take your competitiveness and try to take a step back. I want to do well. I want to compete at the Olympics. But at what cost?”

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

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