Brazilian athletes drop Olympic dreams to help flood victims

By Leonardo Benansatto and Ricardo Brito

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (Reuters) -Less than three months from the Olympic Games in Paris, Brazilian athletes from the devastated southern state of Rio Grande do Sul are giving up their dreams to compete and staying at home to help with the rescue of victims of the severe floods.

Rowers Evaldo Becker and Piedro Tuchtenhagen, due to compete in the qualifying phase for the Olympic Games in the lightweight double sculls category, decided to drop their sporting quest and join volunteers saving stranded neighbors, finding them shelter and distributing aid.

"I said: Piedro, I can't do it anymore," Becker told Reuters by telephone.

"The Olympics are the dream of our lives, but today we cannot see ourselves leaving our state," said Tuchtenhagen.

Their training was disrupted by the floods that inundated the streets of state capital Porto Alegre after the river Guaiba burst its bank. So they began helping to distribute donations and rescue families and their pets.

"I didn't even think twice. It was my last chance to get to the Olympics. I was excited. But the flood waters took my dream away just as it took lives," Becker said.

Swimmer Viviane Jungblut, who already qualified for the open water race, also dropped out and said on social media she would put her efforts into the rescue and recovery operations.

World and Olympic surfing champion Italo Ferreira went to Rio Grande do Sul to help in the rescue efforts. The coach of the Brazil Olympic men's judo team, Antonio Carlos Kiko Pereira, also joined in rescue work.

The athletes stayed in Rio Grande do Sul even as the Brazilian Olympic Committee devised a plan to evacuate them from the state to train elsewhere in Brazil for the qualifiers.

Former Olympic athletes also volunteered to help. Gymnast Daiane dos Santos, who competed in three Summer Games, and former Olympic swimmer Nicholas Santos, who holds the world record for 50-meters butterfly, joined the rescue operations.

Unprecedented floods in Rio Grande do Sul have left a toll of 113 dead, with 146 people still unaccounted for in the disaster that has displaced more than 300,000 from their homes, civil defense said.

The level of the Guaiba river dropped overnight, but it began to rain again on Friday and more rain is forecast in coming days, raising fears of more extensive flooding.

(Reporting by Leonardo Benansatto in Porto Alegre and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Writing by Anthony Boadle; editing by Diane Craft)