Saturday 22 September 2018

'They said the bay would be cleaned and it hasn't been'

Shaw: "It is a shame for the residents of Rio, a shame for the marine life and then last of all it is a shame for us, the sailors.” Photo by Richard Langdon/Getty Images

Andy Bull

The storm caught everyone by surprise, a sudden rush of wind bringing in great black clouds bearing torrential rain. The fleet was already at sea, 60 or so windsurfers racing around Pevensey Bay in East Sussex. Many were teenagers, the rest veterans, aged 40 and over. Officials ran up the warning flags and sent out rescue boats to bring the sailors in. The squall had scattered them to all corners so they came back in dribs and drabs, some by boat, some by board. All but one, a 15-year-old girl called Bryony Shaw.

Her mother, Hazel, was on the beach, pacing up and down in the rain. "Where is she?" Hazel asked herself. Thirty minutes passed. "Is she stuck?" Forty-five minutes. "Should I get in my car and go look for her?" An hour.

By then all the other sailors were back, had showered and packed up. Then a sail appeared. Hazel could just see a little No 2 on its side. "Bryony." She came closer, up to the beach, dumped her kit and went running up, shouting: "Mum. Mum. Mum." When the storm hit Bryony had dropped her sail, sat down on her board and waited. When the bad weather passed she set off for the finish line. Hazel was in floods of tears, but Bryony was elated. "I finished the race," she shouted. Then, surprised to find her mum so upset, Bryony said only "Oh, mother" and stalked off to the sailing club for a shower.

Eighteen years later Bryony Shaw is one of the world's best female windsurfers, top of the international rankings and one of the favourites for the gold medal at the Olympics. She has already won a bronze, at Beijing in 2008.

In early June, Shaw won a test event in Rio, competing over the Olympic course against the world's best. While she was there another bad news story broke about the water quality at the venue, Guanabara Bay. A study found traces of super bacteria that causes pneumonia and meningitis. For Shaw this was not a shock. "In the years we've been training there, every time I go out, I think: 'Oh my God, there's still so much trash in the water.'"

More than 70pc of Rio's sewage runs untreated straight into the sea. "You can see in the streets that there is a regular outflow, it is just the way they do it," Shaw says. "It's disappointing. Talk to locals and they say 30 years ago the bay wasn't like this. It was clean, it was blue and it didn't smell."

The Olympics, she says, are a missed opportunity. "They said the bay was going to be cleaned and it hasn't been. It is a shame for the residents of Rio, a shame for the marine life and then last of all it is a shame for us, the sailors."

Shaw has suffered before. In 2010, she was poisoned by polluted water,and became so ill that "my stomach lining was stripped out and I couldn't digest high-fibre foods for over six months". It had a surprising side-effect. "I became reliant on drinking Coca-Cola to help my digestion." She was drinking it with every meal, bar breakfast. "Not an addiction, but a habit."

Shaw's nutritionists are not going to prescribe Coke, but some of her doctors do because her sport exposes her to so many bugs. "It kills everything, it kills the healthy bacteria, but it also kills the harmful bacteria. So in some cases it's recommended, which is crazy." She has since kicked her Coke habit.

She came down with pneumonia in 2012 while competing in Cadiz and was still recovering when the London Olympics started. In no fit state Shaw finished seventh.

Shaw seems to be more worried about the litter in the water than they are about the bugs. In her last race at the venue a big fertiliser bag wrapped around her fin. "I had to stop, put my sail down, pick it off with my hands, and I went from fifth to 10th. We've sailed there so much now that I'm trying to stay unemotional about it. It's like: 'OK, this is almost going to be an inevitability.'"

Easier said than done when you have spent four years training for that one event. But being an Olympian, and a successful one, Shaw has to reconcile herself to the risks she takes to win those elusive rewards.

In December, Shaw's Spanish friend and rival Marina Alabau, who won the gold medal at London 2012, was infected with the Zika virus while training in Rio. "She had a bit of a rash, a bit of a fever. But she said the symptoms weren't too bad and the feeling from her was that she would get Zika 10 times over again if it would give her a shot at another Olympic medal."

Shaw says she is being "really careful, more careful than I would normally be with mosquitoes". But when Alabau "hears other athletes saying: 'I might not go to the Games in case I catch Zika', she's like: 'Are you crazy? This is your dream.'"

Shaw first stepped on to a windsurfing board when she was nine, on a family holiday to Argeles-sur-Mer in the south of France. "She had 15 minutes of instruction in very broken English on the beach," says her mother. "Then she got on a board, hauled up the sail, and set straight off to the horizon." Hazel was left hopping up and down on the beach, telling the instructor: "Excuse me. That's my daughter disappearing to Africa."


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