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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Swim Opt-Out: A Good Policy


For many MOP age groupers, like me, triathlon proved to be a fun, even addictively fun way to get in and stay in shape. Many of us come from a running background and have been all-too-happy to be able race in two other disciplines. The newness of things like wetsuits and triathlon bikes creates an appeal and that drives a desire to compete.

However, alongside all of this is something darker. The darkest in fact. Tragically, some of our fellow athletes have died during competition. The industry, obviously, does not shine a light on these events, but they bear repeating for the sake of the sport.

On May 28 last year, a local physician, Michael Wiggins, was competing in the Pelican Fest Triathlon. Before the swim ended, he was discovered by the safety crew face down in the water. My quick research of the news says that no specific cause of death was identified but Dr. Wiggins apparently suffered from irregular heart rhythms.

Last August, two people died in the Nautica NYC Triathlon, also during the swim event. Michael Kudryk and Amy Martrich were both pulled from the Hudson River and could not be revived.

I suspect there are similar stories around the world even though I did not go out and research them. These two alone are chilling and sobering. They bring home the real dangers associated with open water swimming.

While I’m not privy to any conversations between USAT and race directors, in the two events I have done this year, I have noticed something that I think will start to be a trend in races: the option to skip the swim without having to take a DNF.

At the Summer Open Sprint, the reasons were more than clear. Winds were driving big waves and even experienced swimmers faced them with some trepidation, yours truly among them. I’m comfortable in most conditions, have swam in real surf extensively and have complete confidence in the buoyancy of my wetsuit. Not everyone feels the same way. Indeed, it’s most likely panic that is at the root of the problems most swimmers experience. Hypoxia is not an uncommon experience, especially if one goes out just a little too hard and if you’re not familiar with it, it can feel like you are suffocating. Combine that with being surrounded by dozens of other swimmers, many of whom may be running into you, slapping you and kicking you and for the inexperienced open-water swimmer, it can be nothing short of terrifying.

Conditions at Greeley were far better. Though the morning started out with wind, at race time, it was calm and the lake was placid and flat. But the option went out all the same. Anyone who wanted to skip the swim was allowed to do so. According to the online results page only a couple of people chose that option, but the important thing is that it is an option.

What I believe, but can’t prove has happened is that participants feel obligated to compete in all three sports. No doubt, they registered with the best of intentions but come race morning, the water was looking pretty scary. There’s undoubtedly pressure to do all three sports as they look around and see others heading for the start. Realizing that they could forfeit their entire race by not participating only adds to it.

Considering how real the risk of swimming accident is, race directors need to be thoughtful about allowing people to be safe without sacrificing their entire race. Past precedent might have meant either no race option at all (DNS) or incomplete results (DNF). I’m sure it’s a bit of pain for the organizers and the timer to set up an exception, but that’s a sacrifice that is well worth it if it involves saving a life. In fact, it probably makes sense to just have this option built-in to the race plan.

As I said before, I don’t know what, if any communications have taken place between USAT and the various race directors across the country. If this is not a policy or at the very least a strongly suggested best practice, perhaps it should be.

For the sake of our sport’s future and more importantly for the continued safety of the athletes who participate in it, we need to be doing all we can to ensure that races continue be fun, enjoyable and safe events.

Thanks for reading!

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