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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

High water mark

In a view from the lake bed, triathletes jostle for position.
 (Photo courtesy of Shane Steube / The Spokesman-Review)

AT THE BOTTOM OF LAKE COEUR D’ALENE – Despite all the music and crowd noise topside, the start of the Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene triathlon was dead quiet from 10 feet underwater.

Moments after the race had begun Sunday, though, the silence was replaced by what sounded like static on a radio. Then, as the swimmers approached, a waterfall-like noise began. It was the sound of more than 2,200 sets of arms and legs flopping, flailing, kicking and slapping the surface of the once-tranquil North Idaho lake.

Eight volunteer scuba divers were positioned below the race course. They hunkered down in the sandy bottom and kept a close watch on the swimmers gliding overhead.

“We’re there for the comfort and support of swimmers,” Spokane resident Trevor Tulodziecki said shortly before the race. Tulodziecki, a welder and dive instructor, is co-captain of the volunteer dive team.

The swim course comprises a mere 2.4 miles of the 140.6-mile triathlon, but the water offers some of the highest risks for the competitors, said Shane Steube, dive co-captain and diving instructor from Coeur d’Alene’s Divers West scuba shop. “The most important part for us to be there is the first leg when everybody’s rushing in,” he said.

During the initial rush from the beach, the swimmers jostle, kick and fight their way through the water. In previous years, the scrum has resulted in broken noses, chipped teeth and countless bruises. The divers also check the entry area for broken glass or other hazards.

At least 40 kayaks, a half dozen canoes and about as many lifeguards on surfboards patrolled the surface of the swim course, but the frenzied beginning of the race can make it nearly impossible to keep a close watch on competitors. In 2002, a swimmer drowned during an Ironman race in Utah.

Divers could see only about 10 feet through the water of Lake Coeur d’Alene on Sunday morning. As waves of swimmers passed above, silt was stirred up, further lessening visibility. Divers positioned themselves at corners on the course and other possible bottlenecks – they might not be able to patrol the entire course, but their presence would be noted in the busiest areas, said volunteer diver Eric Thomson, who spends much of his time out of the water as field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s office in Coeur d’Alene.

“It gives them a boost of confidence to see us down there,” Thomson said.

The divers wore thick neoprene suits to stay warm in the 64-degree water. Despite the heavy metal air tanks strapped to their backs – the tanks are crammed with enough pressurized air to fill a phone booth – the divers still wore belts carrying upward of 25 pounds of lead to help them sink.

The swimmers wear goggles, allowing them to glimpse the divers below. Most racers also wear serious expressions, but many appeared startled at the sight of the underwater course volunteers – they often took split-second pauses from their strokes to grin, wave or point.

Canadian Ellen Boelcke finished the Ironman last year but decided this year to volunteer as a diver, while her husband was in the race. Boelcke said she would be keeping watch for him.

“He’s in a white cap,” she joked, moments before submerging. The vast majority of racers wore white swim caps.

Some swimmers were sleek and graceful through the water.Others floundered around, spun, flailed their arms and pounded the surface, creating an underwater noise like a distant drum.

Most of the swimmers’ legs dragged behind like dead weight. The arms do all the work, saving the legs for the run and cycle courses, Boelcke said. “You have to use them for the next two events, so during the swim you try not to use them at all.”

It took nearly 20 minutes for the largest group of swimmers to pass overhead. Their black silhouettes cast a dark shadow over the bottom of the lake. Their faces were sheathed in a veil of silvery bubbles, unrecognizable.

In all the thrashing, some swimmers collided. Feet met heads. Fists smashed into feet. Heads hit. The divers, from their comfortable perches in the sand, watched the action and could hear subsequent grunts, moans and muffled shouts.

Despite all the jostling and shoving, there were no reports of serious injury on the swim course Sunday, according to two sheriff’s deputies who patrolled the race on personal watercraft. At least three swimmers were helped because of exhaustion.

Perhaps the highest drama on the lake came in the final seconds of the race. Swimmers are given only two hours and 20 minutes to complete their two loops. One competitor, a 48-year-old Canadian, made it out of the water with just 12 seconds to spare. The crowd roared as he stumbled across the finish.