She was 4 or 5, on a family canoe trip. Suzanne and her brother sat in the middle of their racing-model boat, a parent on each end. The water was fast and high, “we hit something, and the canoe flipped,” she said. Suzanne and her brother emerged from the water together, under the inverted hull in perfect darkness.
To ensure the river wouldn’t carry her away as her parents flipped the canoe upright, her father reached under the sides of the boat and pulled her back underwater and to safety. He was wearing green. “I had nightmares for weeks about the green river monster,” Smail said.
So when the experienced Spokane runner, now 31, decided to learn to swim a couple of years ago, more than 20 years after the capsize, it was slowly: She clung to the edge of a pool and practiced blowing bubbles. For her first triathlon, she chose a pool swim rather than a river or lake. And as she looks ahead to her first open-water triathlon, she said, “I can’t say I’m not freaking out.”
She’ll be in good company. As more people enter triathlons in the Inland Northwest and around the U.S., more swimmers – including novices – are splashing into open water for long-distance swims. Area coaches and race organizers say the swim portion of triathlon is the greatest source of anxiety among participants. It’s also the part of the race where the most people die.
“If there’s one thing I lay awake worrying about, it’s the swim leg,” said Tony Koch, who organizes the Hayden Triathlon in North Idaho.
Triathlons combine running, biking and swimming into single timed races. They come in a range of distances. Near the short end is the sprint triathlon, with a swim of just under half a mile, although some events are shorter. At the long end are “ultra distance” swims, including Ironman, of 2.4 miles. Ironman competitors are cut off at two hours and 20 minutes in the water.
That someone will drown during one of her triathlons is her biggest fear, said Marla Emde, director of the Valley Girl race in Liberty Lake and WunderWoman in Medical Lake. Both events are relatively short – with swims of one-third and one-quarter mile, respectively – and often attract competitors new to the sport.
“Swimming is a dangerous (part) of triathlon, no doubt about it,” Emde said. “Every year we get one or two people who get in the water and freak out and just can’t do it.”
‘Just a phenomenon’
Triathlons are booming, with participation at an all-time high after a decade of growth, according to USA Triathlon, the organizing body that sanctions more than 3,500 races and chooses and trains the nation’s Olympic triathletes.
USA Triathlon says it had more than 150,000 members in 2011, compared with around 15,000 to 21,000 a year from 1993 to 2000.
“It’s just a phenomenon,” said Emde, who said the 600 slots in July’s Valley Girl were snatched up quickly.
But also in recent years, more people have died attempting triathlons – most of them in the water.
A 44-year-old man from Smyrna, Ga., died May 19 during the swim part of a 700-person triathlon in Jekyll Island, Ga.
Last summer, according to a count by the Washington Post, at least nine people died during triathlons in the U.S., which appeared to be a record. Eight of the nine died during the swim portions.
Thirteen of the 14 sudden deaths that occurred in triathlons from 2006 to 2008 were during the swim portions, according to a study published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That was out of nearly 3,000 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events during that period, involving nearly 960,000 participants.
Drowning was declared the cause of all the swimming deaths in the JAMA study. Of the nine triathletes who received autopsies, seven had heart problems.
The study noted that triathlons have “chaotic” starts with dense crowds of people plunging into cold, turbulent water. Those conditions are difficult to swim in. They also make it difficult to identify and rescue swimmers in trouble, no matter the cause, the study said.
Koch chafes a bit at studies noting death rates among triathlon swimmers.
“It’s kind of like saying you’re more likely to get frostbite if you climb Everest than if you dive the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
It may be true that swimming is more inherently dangerous than, say, running, he said. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do triathlons. By dividing their workout time among three sports, triathletes can avoid injuries caused by too much of one. There’s always something to work on, which keeps them engaged.
“People get in the greatest shape of their lives doing triathlon,” Koch said.
‘Plan for the worst’
Still, it’s keeping people safe in the water that keeps Koch up at night.
As a USA Triathlon-sanctioned event, the Hayden race must meet the organization’s safety requirements. Lifeguards, stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers on the course’s perimeter, and a sheriff’s boat and physician will be on hand. “Extraction processes” are in place for pulling struggling racers from the water.
“You have to plan for the worst possible swimmer and hope for much better,” Koch said.
The Hayden event has also added a “swim buddy” category: Each participant gets their own experienced swimmer to swim alongside them. The idea is to ease anxiety among new swimmers as well as provide another safety measure: The buddy can serve as rescuer if needed.
At the Valley Girl and WunderWoman events, staff members on kayaks float amid racers on the course, among other safety measures. “They’re looking to make sure that nobody’s struggling, nobody’s going under,” Emde said.
The kayakers offer encouragement and guidance, helping the racers stay on course, and the boats serve as floating rest stops. Swimmers who need a break can grab the side and hang on until they’re ready to go on.
Emde said the swim-course staff at her races are carefully trained to provide support and rescue. But their job is challenging: “It’s like watching a summertime pool with 300 kids at once.”
You can’t necessarily gauge a person’s swimming ability by looking at them, Koch said. A tubby-looking guy standing on the shore might beat a muscle-bound competitor.
As opposed to biking and running, “swimming is about 80 percent technique, almost balletic, and about 20 percent athletic ability,” he said.
In other words, there’s no scanning the crowd, picking out the people most likely to drown and suggesting they come back after more training. Ultimately, it’s up to participants to “assume their own risk,” Koch said.
During prerace clinics, Emde said, “I tell people, ‘It’s very serious. If you don’t know how to swim, you need to learn now. And if you feel like you can’t do it, don’t do it.’ ”
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