Rio's Marathon Swim: A Battle Against Waves, Pollution And Jellyfish : The Torch American Haley Anderson has prepared for all the challenges she can expect in the open-water swim. The goal: improve on her 2012 performance, where she missed out on gold by four-tenths of a second.
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Rio's Marathon Swim: A Battle Against Waves, Pollution And Jellyfish

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Rio's Marathon Swim: A Battle Against Waves, Pollution And Jellyfish

Rio's Marathon Swim: A Battle Against Waves, Pollution And Jellyfish

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Marathon swimming is a recent entry at the Summer Olympics. It debuted in 2008. The race is 10 kilometers in open water. That's 6.2 miles. It takes about two exhausting hours. NPR's Melissa Block brings us this profile of marathon swimmer Haley Anderson, who will compete for the USA in Rio.

CATHERINE VOGT: Leave on the top, here we go. Haley, you're going to go first.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: I catch up with Haley Anderson at early morning swim practice. She's training in a pool at USC in Los Angeles. She is lean and sculpted with vivid blue eyes that match the water she's slicing through. Catherine Vogt watches Anderson swim with a careful eye. She's the U.S. open-water head coach for the Rio Games.

She also coached her at the last Olympics and here at USC where Haley set three school records in freestyle.

VOGT: I like that she's, like, the middle child. She's (laughter), you know - she's really tough. And she's really competitive. And she's very observant. She notices everything around her, which I think helps make her be really good.

BLOCK: And that all paid off at the 2012 London Olympics where Haley Anderson won the silver medal. She missed gold by a mind-boggling four tenths of a second, just a fraction of a second after two hours in the water. After hours of practice, Haley grabs a quick bite.

HALEY ANDERSON: Eggs, chicken and avocado.

BLOCK: And sits down poolside to talk about her sport. Racing for two hours straight in murky, choppy open water with dozens of other swimmers bunched up all around you, that takes...

ANDERSON: A certain kind of crazy. You had to be a little weird to want to put yourself through two hours or more of pain.

BLOCK: And for those two hours, Anderson says, even at her elite level, she's constantly fighting self-doubt, asking herself can I do this?

ANDERSON: You have to push yourself past what you think you can do, push past the barriers, like, in your mind 'cause in every race, you don't think you can do it.

BLOCK: And it can get really physical out there.

ANDERSON: I've been grabbed by my ankles and been pulled back. That takes a lot of effort, you know? You don't just happen to close your hand around somebody's ankle and pull back, you know? That takes conscious effort.

BLOCK: Is that allowed to grab somebody's ankle?

ANDERSON: No, it's not allowed. But if the officials don't see it, then it's OK.

BLOCK: So what occupies her mind for those long hours in the water, besides self-doubt? Well, she'll sing songs in her head. But that can backfire.

ANDERSON: There's a few races where every time I had Justin Bieber "Baby" stuck in my head, and I was like, I don't think I can do another 10K with this song stuck in my head.

BLOCK: For two hours?

ANDERSON: Yes, for two hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY")

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, oh. Like, baby.

BLOCK: So that's one hazard. And in open-water swimming with wind and waves, there's no way around this.

ANDERSON: I do take in a lot of water as I'm swimming. I don't know how much, but I do choke on water quite a bit. You know, it gets in your mouth.

BLOCK: Which given Rio's notoriously polluted waters is a scary thought. Anderson says she'll take probiotics and antibiotics before the race. And she'll try not to think about what's in the water off Copacabana Beach. She tells herself don't worry about things you can't control. Instead, as she swims, maybe she'll keep an eye on her left wrist.

ANDERSON: My mom said it's the only tattoo I can get, so I got it.

BLOCK: On her wrist is a tattoo of the five Olympic rings. She got it after she won silver in London four years ago.

ANDERSON: I just think about how much time, how much effort I've dedicated to this sport, you know? And it's just a constant reminder of the sport I love and everything I've gotten from it.

BLOCK: Haley Anderson, marathon swimmer, is bringing her certain kind of crazy to Rio. She races on August 15. Melissa Block, NPR News.

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