Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is the Triathlon Swim Unsafe?

On Sunday two triathletes died during the swim of the New York City Triathlon. Details about the deaths are still coming out but it appears both victims, a 64-yr old man and 40-yr old woman, suffered from cardiac arrest.

Fellow bloggers Jon and Joel had some thoughts if you have been in a cave and need to get caught up.

As a surprise to no one, NYC Lawmakers are already calling for changes to protect triathletes in future races.

According to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer:
"New Yorkers signed up for a triathlon - not a game of Russian Roulette," Stringer said. "Choosing to compete is a decision every athlete has to make for themselves - but it is the obligation of the city to make sure all potential risks are accounted for to the extent possible."

Personally, I feel Mr. Stringer is completely over the top in comparing triathlon to a game of Russian Roulette but does he have a point that maybe something needs to be done to mitigate possible risks during the swim?

I've seen a few ideas flowing around the triathlon message boards and was wondering what everyone here thinks?

- Should a competitor be able to prove they can swim the race distance by submitting previous race results?

- If competitor is a first timer should they be required a recommendation from a life guard or certified swim instructor?

- Or, if a first timer, should a pre-qualification swim be required to prove your swim-worthiness?

- Or should we just chalk this up as a tragic accident and not overreact and make the barriers to entry that much more challenging?

I spent this Sunday spectating at a local Sprint Tri with over 1500 competitors and it was reported about half of the entrants were first timers. I saw A LOT of people suffering on a short (non-wetsuit) 500M swim course.  Lots of ugly out there and a few people were pulled out on kayaks as well.

Normally, I would flip the NYC Lawmaker the bird and tell him to mind his own freaking business but after giving it a little more thought would it be such a bad idea to implement some type of qualifier to prove swim worthiness?

Please let me hear your thoughts?

*Disclaimer - since this is my blog I am free to change my opinion and be hypocritical on this multiple times.

Thanks for Reading,



  1. The one thing that is keeping me from attempting a triathlon is the swim portion since that is my weekest event. When I see the swimmers at the Iron Man swimming over each other it kind of freaks me out. I can see how easy it would be to get kicked or knocked out by mistake while trying to swim in a pack like that.

  2. I'm almost certain those two deaths were people who could swim. A swim certification wouldn't have changed a thing. A month ago we had a death in an open water swim race. It was a guy who could easily swim in the 1:15 pace LCM lane. People have heart attacks. Sometimes it happens when they are eating a pizza. Sometimes it happens when they are swimming.

    I say skip the certification test but have plenty of noodles at any race. Pass them out like candy to people who want them. Then DQ their asses. That might teach them . They'll be pissed they paid their money and only got to swim. No medal. No shirt. And a DQ in the records, not a DNF. But let them keep the swim noodle.

  3. And before we know it, we are going to need a doctor's prescription to do a 1 mile walk for charity.

    Then we are going to need the city's approval to walk out our door's and step on a city street, because of the risk of us suing the city for negligence in slipping on a banana peel.

    Where does it end?

    We are slowly but surely going to be living in boxes on wheels with electronic implants.

  4. I want to put in my 2 cents but am waffling which side of the fence I should be on.

    The NYC tri is famous for a fast swim due to the current of the river. They adjust the date so that the current is generally favorable. A few years ago they put a timing chip on a bag of fritos and the fritos did a 22 minute swim. A friend of mine who should have done about a 27 minute swim finished his swim in 19.

    I don't know the history of these two competitors. Experienced triathletes have had medical issues and one in fact died in a previous NYC tri.

    The politicians are saying the conditions warranted cancelling the swim due to the rain the night before and the temperature (air temp was a high of 89). I've been to triathlons where the RD was overly cautious and shortened or canceled the swim. I wasn't happy.

    My 15yo daughter is competing in her first grown up tri with an OWS in a few weeks. This swim is 1000m and will be wetsuit legal. I've taken her swimming in open water a few times and have practiced contact swimming with her. I think she is ready but I couldn't "prove" it to someone who had some arbitrary standard.

    BTW: she will probably beat me.

    Sorry for the ramble.

  5. The open water swim is what I fear most about a triathlon and is what has been holding me back from taking the plunge. I am not sure though if we should require people to qualify or be certified. Look how many people die each year running marathons. Are going to make them qualify or be certified as well? What about cycling? Should we be licensed? I think we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. When we tow the line we all know the risks. This is who we are and the risks are worth it to us.

  6. I think we are over thinking this. I am sorry for the families who lost love ones but if there are million of entries to races and 2 people die that is favorable odds. The truth of the matter is 2 freak accidents happened in the same event. A shame but thats life. We can be killed on the way to a race in your car. There has been some reports that these 2 swimmers were not ready for this OWS. The woman in fact finished and died the next day, why did she continue? As far as I am concerned the race did nothing wrong and unfortunately 2 freak accidents happened in the same day.

  7. Oooh, brave one for posting this question. And it's not an easy question to answer. My first tri, an 8 year old beat me in the open water swim. I'm sure many thought the mom was crazy for letting this girl compete. She just did the swim not the bike or the run. Last year I did an olympic distance tri and the water was barely 48 degrees. And that was ridiculous. You train so hard for an event, you're not thinking clearly when the race official tells you "It's unsafe and you're swimming at your own risk." And then you get in the water and all rational thoughts leave. That was unsafe. But I can't say weather or not I'd do it again. We are risk takers, that's part of the lure of the sport. And honestly, I think the biking is just as unsafe as the swim. But my opinion doesn't count for much. That's why I don't have a blog.

  8. SSB, "But let them keep the swim noodle" ... Quite possibly my favorite comment ever.

    You changed my mind for the final time. And I am now going to extend my middle finger to the NYC politician!

  9. Open-water swim deaths (in triathlon and stand-alone races) don't discriminate between strong and weak swimmers: the question of why people are more likely to have heart attacks while swimming than while biking or running is separate from more general safety questions re: swim leg of triathlon.

    I'm wary of certification: it's not like race directors are going to help novices arrange it, and I well remember the circularity of wanting to register for open-water swims but not having a certifying swim to do so! Open-water organizations like NYC Swim tend to be a bit more stringent about certification than triathlon race organizers, but even so, they only require a pool certification for all but their longest (i.e. marathon) swims, and I think we are all in agreement that open water and pool swimming are two different animals.

    That said, I do think that some criminally weak swimmers undertake triathlon swims where it's really not safe for them to be out there, and potentially endangers other swimmers and volunteers as well. What's the solution? Well, I don't know, but I wouldn't mind seeing relays offered as a more common option: it lets those who truly have a phobia about open-water swimming still participate without risking panic attacks!

  10. Jeff, the bottom line here is that apparently both of these folks were not newbies, knew how to swim, etc. They both apparently had cardiac arrest whilst swimming. The reality is that any of us could have the same thing happen to us. Statistically, deaths in Tri are few, but those that do occur garner lots of press. I personally don't want the government telling me I can't swim because I have to pass some arbitrary test or have a doctor sign off on my ability. I should have the smarticles (I just made up that word) to gauge my own fitness and health history to make appropriate decisions for myself.

    Just my $0.02.

  11. I am going to assume these people are plenty insured and the families are well taken care of. (WTC says the ave. salary of an IMer is $165K). That's my lead in premise..

    NOW.... they died doing what they loved... shouldn't we all be so lucky??

  12. That is what waivers are for. AT YOUR OWN RISK!

  13. While teenagers (and grade schoolers even) have to have annual sports physicals to show they are "ok'd" by the doc for sports, adults are not. And yet, even occassionally, a very young athlete (high schooler even) dies due to various reasons that may or may not have been predictable by a physician.

    I think every adult should have a personal relationship with a physician that helps them monitor their health and readiness for a variety of life activities. I haven't seen my doctor this year, but I had a pretty thorough round of tests last year and at age 38, with no major health issues in my history, I'm comfortable with every other year physicals.

    A young man died of heat related causes at a Warrior Dash in KC the weekend before. Should the race have been held with extreme heat warnings out? Hard to say, but the loss of a young man (28) is hard to bear regardless.

    In the end, I think we have to stop being a society that expects everyone else to make the decisions and then backseat judge when the decision may or may not have been right. Was the swim particularly tough? Probably. Did these adults make the choice to push their limits anyway? Yes. Should this be seen as anything other than an untimely passing of people doing what they loved? I really don't think so. I agree with OneHourIronman - we should all be so lucky.

  14. As a fellow NYer I heartily endorse flipping Scott Stringer the bird. For all the press about the two deaths - indisputably tragic - there was little press about the two competitors' past experience, family history, etc. I read that the 64 year old man was registered for a race in Jersey later this season and I assume that he was an experienced triathlete, but I've never seen this verified. For all we know, he had every genetic marker and predisposition for heart disease and death by cardiac arrest at 40, but managed to cheat it by 24 years. We'll never know and some Manhattan politician will not hesitate to make his knee-jerk $.02 opinion law if he's able to get it through the City Council. Meh.

    What I want to see are the statistics about how many New Yorkers died of chronic sedentary cheetos syndrome on 8/7/11. Not to make light of it, but I'm firmly convinced that planting your ass on the couch on a permanent basis is far, far more dangerous than any race, OWS or not.

  15. Beal88 said exactly what I was going to say.

    When we sign up for an event, we know the risk. It would be one thing if a competitor died because of drowning during the swim portion, this mishap would be more on the race organizer.

    I haven't done a triathlon yet, somewhat due to fears of swimming in open water.

    I don't think we need any more legislation or rules in order to do something, it just opens a can of worms for regulating everything with events. The US is already the most litigated country in the world. It was liberating visiting New Zealand for a bit - there all responsibility is on the person. Here in the US everyone tries to find a scapegoat. Imagine that - personal responsibility!

    If I die during a marathon, then I die - I can't sue anyone. And that is how it should be.

  16. Obviously, extremely tragic, but no more regulations please.

    That said, 2 out of how many? That said it doesn't matter because even 2 out of 10,000 suggests a statistical anomaly which most likely is due to an outside factor. It will be helpful to learn context.

  17. It's really a tragic situation, but did they die because they were unfit to do the swim or because of some pre-existing condition that erupted during the swim? You hear of people dying during a marathon, some trying to qualify for the Olympics, and it's never because they aren't fit enough to compete.

    I just think that if you sign up to do a race, you are saying that you are capable on a given day to do that. It shouldn't be the race directors responsibility to test people to make sure they can do what they signed up for.

    I feel for the families of these athletes... I hope they realized that these two died doing something they loved.

  18. Great post, Jeff. My medical insight into this issue. http://kierdoestri.blogspot.com/2011/08/cardiac-arrest-during-triathlons.html

    I think ultimately the athlete is responsible for their own health.

  19. Raise the debt ceiling and provide a kayak for every swimmer courtesy of The Man. Just kidding of course. No more regulations please.

  20. I'd love to see the stats on heart attacks in the swim leg of a tri (deaths/total competitors) for the entire year - not just NYC. Compare that to the stats for the same cause of death across the general population. If the tri stat is greater, then maybe there is some causality, if it is the same then there is no reason to blame the tri, and if it is less then maybe that suggests that triathletes are a group less susceptible or maybe self selecting. Either way - I'd love to see the data rather than create legislation based on speculation.

  21. I dreamed of doing a triathlon for a long time. I was NOT a swimmer. i knew if I was ever going to enter a race, I MUST be able to swim. Enter lessons, masters swimming, and a LOT of work. I did not send in my entry fee until I KNEW I would be able to swim the distance (Oly). Thankfully, I picked it up quickly - from dog paddle to really swimming in about 3 months.

    That said, it is all of our individual choice as to what we race - people die running marathons, swimming, cycling - it isn't something a city can prevent in a race with more rules.

    We need to know our own limitations and be responsible for ourselves. Sadly, sometimes that's not even enough.

  22. I am the type that likes only minimal regulations. However, where safety is involved I would consider it. It depends on how restrictive it is.

    Anyway, I believe these are isolated incidents and not a frequent occurrence. So I would say just make note of it and continue with the way it is. After all, it was cardiac arrest, not anything that the race caused. Heck, they could have expired during a training swim.

  23. I'm not a triathlete but we get the same thing here in south Africa with the Comrades Marathon. There's been some years where runners die while running and then all non-runners everywhere go over the top about it. So far they have never changed anything because of a runner's death.
    I personally feel these athletes would have died, probably sooner, if they didn't do sport. That is died because of cardiac arrest as well.

  24. I'm going with "tragic accident and not overreact".

    I'm reminded of a blog post Krista @ Commitment is Liberating did a year ago (I dug it out here: http://www.commitmentisliberating.com/2010/08/thank-your-emergency-responders.html). She, her husband and dad did a 2 mile OWS race. After the finish, her dad was rushed to the hospital and had heart surgery. Thankfully he was on the shore when he began to have problems and the damage was minimal. My point is that this is someone who is/was in great shape and had done the race in the past.

    It is a tragedy, but no changes please. Let's not react based on emotions.

  25. As usual a very debatable post.


    My goodness, they must want more obese Americans?

    In my opinion, when you sign up, you are stating that you are capable of completing the distances. This happened to me over the weekend, they changed the swim "rules" and allowed people to walk the shore "If they wanted". PISSED ME OFF, took me out of podium spots. Why did they do that? to accommodate newbies, sad thing is experienced athletes did this too. I didn't sign up for a NEWBIE race.

    Now, devils advocate. The other perspective is, either submit previous race times or have a lifeguard sign off that you swam that distance in a pool. Why? So that they never have to "change" the swim rules to accommodate newbies.

  26. First, thought and prayers go out to the families.

    Second, SSB has the comment of the year

    Third, 13 people died swimming at triathlons out of the hundreds of thousands of people who did them. They are freak accidents. People who are not in the sport need to leave this alone and let us be

  27. I will go back and read others opinions but don't want to be swayed before I put mine out there.

    I get the idea of proving your swim ability as a first timer but how would you suggest that is setup? Swim 1000m in a pool one day? Swim for 15 minutes in the open water? Take a lifeguard test? And then who pays for it?

    Do I have to pay to prove I can swim then pay to participate in a triathlon?

    These are tragic incidents and to me nothing more. They had cardiac arrest in the water, but what if they would have had that on the bike? Would we be calling for bike lessons first? How about the run?

    I just think this is tragic and adding more bureaucracy to this process doesn't make sense. There were deaths at the Chicago Marathon because of the heat and we didn't stop having marathons or prove that a person could run 20 miles before they entered another marathon did we?

  28. This is awesome!

    Personal Responsibility ...
    Keep policy makers out of our sport ...
    Do not want to pay more ...

    It sounds like a Tea Party Rally up on in here! Hells Yeah!

  29. I saw a shirt at a race that said if triathlons were easy everyone would do it. I applaud the first timers for giving it a go...I don't mind the kayaks and canoes out to keep it safe. Just attempting is a bonus, but if the swim is too much so be it. Personal responsibility is leaving our society too fast.

    New York City...if your doing the Ironman Natl Championship there..be ready to wear water wings.

  30. As with most of the deaths in triathlon's swims, they were due to cardiac arrest. no amount of "pre-qualification" is going to change this.

  31. As a few others have said - this has no relation to "not being able to swim" - these folks had heart attacks. They may have had the ability to swim a full 3 miles prior to this race. Unfortunately, the human body has its own ideas sometimes, despite a person's abilities. No "proof of swim skill" will do anything to combat heart attacks, leg cramps, stomach bugs, or whatever ailments that put people in danger in the water.

  32. This has me mad, doesnt take much now a days, So I did a little research

    Deaths in:
    - Triathlon 13, USAT states 1,208,000 did AT LEAST ONE race = 0.001% chance of dying
    - During liposuction 20
    - Contact with hot tap water 26
    - Lightning 47
    - Bee or wasp stings 66
    - Falling from a ladder 477
    - Falling off your bed or couch 899

    So, to be fair, I need this guy to first ban lipsuction, hot tap water, lightning, elimnate all bees and wasps, ban all ladders and ban all pieces of furniture and beds before he takes on triathlons.

  33. Oh and 100 people died due to choking on ball point pens, ban those too

  34. My first olympic race i had zero OWS practice, only 4 months of masters practices. Horn sounded and I ran into the water only to get swum over by all the experienced athletes. I totally hyperventilated and barely completed the swim with a dogpaddle/backstroke combo in just under an hour! Afterwards, I berated myself for not doing more OWS training and that next week I committed myself to doing an ocean swim once a week until my next race. I now practice the swim more than the other 3 disciplines because of that mistake in judgement I made. I didn't blame the race director or the USAT guys, just my own poor judgement.
    I don't get these politicians...is there even anybody asking for more regs on tri races? Or are they just puffing themselves up and creating more regulations and growing our government and growing our debt...who's gonna oversee these new regs and how is it going to be paid for?
    Same thing happens in CA (where I'm from). An incident occurs and regulations are set in place to "prevent" the incident from happening again but there's NO money to pay to oversee the regs and the taxpayers refuse to vote on tax increases to pay for the regs! Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again getting the same result but expecting a different one.

  35. Simple, completely ban all triathlons except those in pools.

  36. I don't think OWS gets the credit it deserves. It's widely known that running can kill even the fittest of folks, but no one ever mentions swimming. You're using every single muscle in your body while having to efficiently manage O2/Co2 levels. Throw some pre-race jitters, a crowded swim start, and a fast current into the mix and there certaily is the potiental for disaster. My husband and I swim 2-3 mile open water gulf races and it's far more taxing than the 1/2 marathons we run. I physically hurt from head to toe towards the end, typically have a horrid headache from CO2 overload, and the beginnings of heart palpatations from pretty bad dehydration. I expect all this and know what to do if it gets out of control. I think the best thing that can be done is to educate athletes and the public for that matter. As WE all know, this isn't swimming like we did at summer camp...this is serious business. New racers and the public alike need to respect the water and realize just as in running, bad shit can happen anytime/anyplace. Racers need to have a plan if something does happen or if they start to feel "off". Don't tough it out or think it's going to get better....it never gets better...especially in the water!

  37. First open water swimming is a MUST when doing a triathlon. You cannot expect to spend time in the pool and think you are ready to swim open water. Just not happening. Also what was the medical conditions of these 2 athletes prior to even starting the race?? You cant judge and tell millions races nation wide that they have to come up with a plan to make sure everyone who is doing a tri knows how to swim. Last week I was at Iron Girl in Syracuse and it was Pitiful trying to get around women who had no Idea how to swim at all!!!!

  38. I have to agree with Ms Duffy. Its highly likely that more people died from chronic sedentary cheetos syndrome (CSCS - got a new acronym, I luv it). The benefits to the triathlon lifestyle FAR outweigh the alternatives. Even for the people who haven't done a triathlon yet. I'm sure they run or bike or have some parallel interest that gets them off the easy chair. BTW, BDD thanks for the stats.

  39. Late to the game but with something a little different… playing the 'personal responsibillity' card is naive. Plenty of boneheads enter/try shit they really oughtn't, and you can't stop that given the way the system is set up. In rowing, there used to be one national championships regatta…anyone could enter. YOU could enter, never having rowed. And it would waste a lot of people's time…i could expand but since I am typing this on my phone I won't. It was very frustrating as an elite rower to contend with this factor…i'lll call it the bonehead factor. The rowing governing body finally split the regatta…elite nationals in one and everybody else in the other. Could they do that with triathlons? There would be 'practice' races to educate the boneheads as to what they were really getting themselves into. But you wouldn't call them that because people only want to do 'real' races. To enter something like an Ironman, you would have had to have completed one of these feeder races. Would that make sense? I am not a triathlete so you guys tell .me

  40. My little two cents--people get heart attacks. Sometimes, while doing nothing...and sometimes while swimming. Unfortunately, with swimming, they’re more likely to drown. Yes, it’s sad, but from my understanding, these deaths had nothing to do with the sport itself...just the health of the competitors.

  41. in a cave and under a big rock appparently
    had not even heard of this

    scary and sad

    they are safe to me, but I don't feel overwhelmed as a swimmer. For people that do they could just do a delayed start of waves (like some races do anyway) with chip times its all the same?

  42. I think if they had died from drowning it would be one thing, but cardiac arrest could have happened on any of the other events as well. I would just like to bring up that one of the women in the swim portion was even using a styrofoam pool noodle along with her wetsuit as she breaststroked her way through the NYC triathlon

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  44. First, my heart goes out to the families of those that died. It is tragic.

    You know, this reminds me of when there is a death in whitewater rafting. Immediately people chime in and say it is too dangerous and that people shouldn't be doing it and whatnot. You know (at least around here) what people die of on the river? Heart attacks.

    It is tragic always, but unfortunately, I think the only way to avoid these things is to do a pre-race heart screening. I am NOT recommending that, I am just saying that a swim test wouldn't have prevented these tragic deaths, just like a pre-whitewater test wouldn't have saved the people that died here.

    The reality is that people have heart attacks. They are most likely to occur when you do things that excite you or stress you out, because the heart gets taxed at those times...

    I am for people taking responsibility for themselves, not for more regulation. But what we will get is more regulation.

  45. Jeff, my feeling on this is that EVERY athlete regardless of fitness—from the newbie who is overweight and underprepared, to the seasoned Ironman veteran—risks dying out on a course every time they put themselves out there. I DO talk about this a lot with my wife. I mean, honestly, say you are a kick ass swimmer and get kneed/elbowed/deliberately smashed in the temple during your swim.... you could drown. Not to mention, many of us know all too well that going light speed down a steep hill on tiny little wheels five to six feet in the air is really, REALLY f-ing dangerous! Sure, you wear a helmet..................

    All the lawmaking is for political posturing.

    Jeff, let's stop the insanity. I think we should declare a Jeff/Mark ticket to run as the official Triathlon Party nominees (I sense a future blog post coming on here)... don't stop me... I'm on a roll and caffeined up!

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