Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Risky Business

Three people have died in triathlons in the U.S. so far this year, all 3 of them during the open water swim. One suffered a heart attack while swimming during the Cohasset Triathlon in the Boston area and the other two drowned for unknown reasons in the St. Anthony's Triathlon (Tampa Bay) and the Ultramax Tri (St. Louis area). Three other people were pulled from the water during the Cohasset Tri-one was released back and continued on with the race and the other 2 were treated at the hospital, one for a 'cardiac event'. The Ultramax victim died 50 yards from shore right in front of his father and hundreds of triathletes waiting on shore to start their waves. Over a hundred people tried to save him but they were too late. I don't know how many triathletes die in the swim each year and it's a hard thing to research (a man in his 70's died of heart failure in the Boulder Reservoir during the Boulder Peak Triathlon 2 years ago and the story doesn't easily come up in a google search for triathlon drownings). Still when you consider that there are nearly 100,000 triathletes registered w/ USAT and 2000 USAT sanctioned events, never mind the unregistered athletes (that would be me) and events even 10 deaths a year would be less than .01 % of the total tri racing community, not a terribly daunting statistic. Nonetheless it's unsettling to read about these deaths.

I learned to swim when I was 8 or so and grew up swimming and playing in Lake Michigan (and lived to tell the tale, just). I always felt pretty confident around water and in my swimming abilities. But I nearly drowned in Lake Michigan in about 2 feet of water. I was a teenager and some friends and I decided to go down to the beach on a day that it was closed for bad weather. It was stormy & windy and there were huge waves and whitecaps which was precisely the attraction. I loved going out from shore a bit then body surfing back in. The power and speed of the waves pulling me along was a big rush until inevitably a way too big wave came along and I couldn't get away in time. I was just a few feet from shore when it hit me and it pulled me under with such power that I couldn't get out. The wave receded and I was stuck in some weird undertow in about 2 feet of water and couldn't get up to the surface. I think I blacked out briefly, it's hard to remember. In the end my boyfriend pulled me out, just. My friends laughed, shrugged it off and probably forgot about it in the way that stupid teenagers do but I never forgot the incident and have had a great respect for the power of open water ever since then.

The other day I discovered an interesting swim safety device called Swim Safe. It's basically a belt that inflates when you pull a chord or you can inflate it yourself with just 4 breaths. It's expensive at $79 plus $7.50 shipping but seems like a clever idea to improve open water swimming safety. You wouldn't think such a device would be controversial but there was quite the debate over on the trinewbies site, not a place I often go to unless I'm looking for a specific bit of info. but I was snooping over there for some reason and became fascinated with the shouting match over this seemingly innocuous piece of equipment. Some people felt the device was a crutch and that it would somehow encourage more inexperienced swimmers into open water tri's. One woman went so far as to say she would keep well away of anyone she saw wearing the belt because obviously that person would have poor swim skills. Another said anyone who felt the need to wear such a belt had no business getting in the water at all (ditto for wetsuits). The person who brought the issue up who was in favor of the device wasn't helping matters by more or less saying that anybody who didn't at least consider wearing one of these was an idiot. The weirdest point of argument though was that of preparedness. A supposedly trained survivalist claimed that the more prepared you are mentally and physically the less equipment you need to survive (yes, that makes sense) thus the more equipment you require the less prepared you are (huh??!!). In his mind being physically and mentally prepared was somehow incompatible with using safety equipment. Analogies to the use of bike helmets seemed to fall on deaf ears. The whole discussion was both bizarre and disturbing leading me to wonder if perhaps the notion of drowning in open water is the big pink elephant in the room that no triathlete wants to talk about. No matter how mentally or physically prepared you are anything can happen out there in the water, esp. during a race with lots of other swimmers and chaos going on around you and perhaps some people aren't comfortable acknowledging that their safety is sometimes beyond their control.

I don't rely on lifeguards, kyaks, safety boats, etc. when I swim. I know I could go under in a second and they wouldn't even notice me gone. I look after my safety by training and not putting myself in situations that I feel are over my head. I went out to the Rez Tuesday morning for an open water masters practice and found the water too choppy for my liking so I swam out and back close to shore rather than doing the big loop out into the Rez that the majority of the group did. I felt 100% safe the whole workout and tomorrow I'll almost certainly swim the big loop with the group if conditions feel right.

However, though I don't rely on them I do take note of where the lifeguards are both during races and practice and I'm sure happy to have them out there. They can't save me in all scenarios but they sure can save me in some and it's an added level of safety I'm grateful to have. I ordered my Swimsafe yesterday and unless it turns out to be too heavy I'll probably use it during practice and races. It's not going to save me in all scenarios and I certainly wouldn't put myself in what I felt were unsafe situations because of it but it's an added level of protection that comes at a relatively small price. Yeah, I'll look like a dork but what else is new.


  1. Drowning is one of my basic gut-wrenching nightmare-inducing fears. I'm not a great swimmer and never was; barely passed the required swimming test to get out of high school (I wonder whether they still do that in this enlightened age?). I had a couple of scary experiences sort of along the lines of yours early in life; don't know whether the fear is related.

    But, hey, as long as we're on the topic, I'll see whether I can add to the paranoia--you probably know but I just read an article about summer safety that said most people who are drowning do it quietly, not thrashing or begging for help. And then a friend (who does agility and some mountain climbing) posted a link to this article about shallow-water blackout.


  2. I've never heard of a swimming test to graduate from high school. I don't know how common it is for high schools to even have swimming pools. Mine did but neither of the high schools in Boulder do. But CO is 49th in school funding so that probably has something to do with it. It seems these days that schools are lucky if they even have P.E. let alone swimming classes.

    '...most people who are drowning do it quietly, not thrashing or begging for help'

    Yep, and that's why I don't rely on lifeguards, etc. It would be so easy to go under during a race and they would never even notice. Also, they tell you to signal that you need help by raising your arm. Well, if you try that your head goes right under, it's very hard to tread water and raise your arm, esp. if you're in trouble. That's why I think the Swimsafe is such a good idea. You might not be able to yell but maybe you could muster the strength to pull the cord and that would call attention to yourself and just maybe they could rescue you. Same for the heart attack victims, maybe they could have managed to pull a cord and the device might have kept them alive long enough to be rescued and saved. Maybe not but it would have increased their chances. I think the safest way to swim is with a partner in an area with a lifeguard. That way you can keep an eye on each other and one person can yell to alert the lifeguard if the other runs into trouble. Unfortunately that's not typically practical.

    Shallow water blackout sounds creepy. I don't think most triathletes who drown succumb to this, this looks like more a diving/underwater swimming thing. The masters coach sometimes has us do that underwater swimming/hold your breath as long as you can thing and I hate it. I always seem to come up for air way before everyone else. Now I have a good excuse not to do it anymore. O.k., it's not a good excuse since I don't hyperventilate beforehand but still.

  3. That sounds like a great device. Cardiac events (which I would think are the most frequent cause of death in a triathalon) don't have anything to do with preparedness or skill. They just happen and if you could save yourself, by keeping yourself afloat until help comes, geez, why not. You surely would have trouble otherwise if you were having a heart attack.


  4. 'Cardiac events ... don't have anything to do with preparedness or skill'

    Nope, they sure don't but I think people don't like to admit to that possibility. Statistically the risk is probably pretty low but still the benefits of the Swimsafe seem pretty high compared to the relatively low cost. But some people don't like to wear seatbelts or helmets or whatever and they're pretty pigheaded about it. If USAT (main sanctioning body of triathlon races in the U.S.) made these things mandatory for their races I can guarantee there would be an uproar. At this point I'm just happy they allow them so I can wear one if I want. And if people avoid me all the better, less chance of getting kicked, smacked or swallowing water.

  5. Great post, Elayne.

    I've only feared imminent drowning once in the past year.

    And that's exactly because I've only done one triathlon.

  6. Anonymous3:09 PM

    Elayne, I bought the swimsafe about two months ago. You will like it and you won't know you have it on. I bought it so I can swim in the ocean by myself when necessary to train. It is a nice comfort to know it's there

  7. I've been swimming with it since last summer and it's true, I don't feel it at all while swimming. My biggest problem is remembering to bring it to practice.