Were the NYC Triathlon swim deaths preventable? A look at our sport.

It’s easy to look at the tragic deaths of two triathletes during the NYC Triathlon this past weekend and dismiss it merely as an unfortunate case of ‘chance’.  It’s easy to say that it’s simply a fact of life that we participate in a ‘dangerous’ sport and it’s an inherent risk. And it’s even easier to say that we shouldn’t do anything about it.

That’s because it’s harder to look critically at how fast triathlon has grown, as well as the trends within the race industry, to ask whether or not changes need to be made.  It’s harder to propose changes that will undoubtedly have a monetary impact to some, if not all, race directors.  And it’s even harder to convince athletes that it might actually be for their own safety.

Swimming: Statistically the most deadly of the three sports

When you initially stop to think about the most dangerous aspect of triathlon, most would think of cycling.  After all, that’s where we have the most vivid images of crashes and injuries.  It’s the one leg of the sport that we normally have a crystal clear mental image of what could lead to critical injuries or death.  But in reality, the bike leg is actually significantly safer than the swim leg.  A study of triathlon deaths from 2006 to 2008 found that out of the 14 total triathlon deaths during that timeframe, only 1 of them occurred on the bike.  None occurred on the run.


I suspect the lower bike fatality rate is due to a number of reasons, but namely that it’s easier to stay within  ones comfort zone on the bike – and thus, limit instances of panic from occurring.  Further, despite triathletes notorious lack of bike handling skills, you’ll find that in general triathletes are more cautious on the bicycle than their non-triathlete cycling friends.  Merely go to any 90* sharp cornered turn at a triathlon and contrast that with the tactics encountered during a cycling road race.

By increasing an athletes ability to stay within their comfort zone, you dramatically reduce cases where an athlete can get into an uncontrollable panicked state, which in turn reduces the likelihood of either triggering a heart attack or cardiac arrest.  Deaths during the swim portion do not typically result from someone simply being unable to swim at all. Instead, death is almost always the result of a heart related condition that prohibits the swimmer from being able to keep their face above the water.

Triathlon Races: Contributing factors to panic during the swim

When you talk to triathletes before their first triathlon, virtually all will convey concerns around the swim.  Some concerns center around the mere ability to complete the full length of the swim, while others focus on the mass starts that are common in almost every triathlon.

Looking at the first scenario, it’s far less common. Most athletes will find that if they can swim the first 100-200 yards, they can swim the remainder of the distance.  It may not be fast, it may not be pretty, but it will occur.

The second issue, that of the swim start, is where most folks center their fears.  There are a number of factors that contribute to athletes being nervous about the swim start, they include:

– Being swum over/under/through by hundreds to thousands of other athletes
– The effects of cold water shock
– The concern of being knocked in the head/face, ultimately losing goggles or swim cap
– And then simply the enormity of completing an event for the first time

All of those items are being mentally rehashed  – increasing ones anxiety even before one enters the water.

As your body comes in contact with the colder water (especially your face), your heart rate will dramatically spike and take about 60-90 seconds to recover (if just sitting still, let alone swimming).  I talked about this and the research behind it previously. This is a key reason why you should always try and get in a warm-up swim in the 3-4 minutes normally allotted between waves.

So now you’ve got an elevated heart rate from simple race anxiety, then you layer in the further elevated heart rate from the cold water, and then you finally add in the actual start of the swim when athletes do indeed swim over & through each other (as well as the mere act requiring you to swim).  In virtually every bit of triathlon guidance for new triathletes it’ll say something to the effect of: “Simply stay off the back for a few seconds to let people go ahead, or swim to the sides for ‘clear’ water.”  Which is great and normally easy to follow advice. 

Except, one couldn’t have done this at the NYC Triathlon.  See, it’s not permitted. Why you ask? Let’s get into that.

A look at the NYC Triathlon Swim Course

The NYC Triathlon swim course is legendary for producing the fast swim times in the sport, due to the river current and tidal flow.  So fast that sub-10 minute Olympic Distance (1,500m) times have been recorded by pro’s, nearly half a common pro triathlete time on a correctly measured course.  The course itself is a simple point to point affair. Which means that it starts in once place, and ends down river.  Athletes are up against a seawall which makes it extremely simple to sight, since you just keep the distance equal to the wall and eventually you find the finish.

This all means that from a course completion standpoint, due to the current, you could literally just sit and float your way to the finish line.  And by the looks of the now infamous video, a number of people did just that.  As you watch the video, note just how many folks are simply drifting along at nearly the same pace as folks actively swimming.

What makes the NYC triathlon swim course even more interesting though is that the tide fluctuates over the course of the morning, resulting in some swim start waves having very fast swim times, and others potentially having rather slow swim times.  The reason for this is spacing in the waves.

Except this year, there were no waves.

Instead, they went with a time trial system.  A time trial start is an interesting concept that’s slowly been catching on within the triathlon world, primarily in larger events.  In larger events it’s implemented such that groups of 8-10 athletes go off every 10 seconds, sometimes it’s also just a constant stream of people jumping into the water. I recently did this as part of the DC triathlon back in June.

There are a number of benefits behind the time trial start, but one of the biggest is to spread out participants on the bike course, thus reducing draft packs (and potentially increasing safety as well). And there’s no doubt that a time trial start does this. In fact, it does it very well.

However, what it also does it eliminate ones ability to acclimate to the water, as well as to ‘stay’ back and let the wave go ahead.  That’s because the waves never stop coming from behind.  So in essence you’re instantly thrusted into a situation out of your control – without warm-up either.  You’ve got swimmers quickly piling up at a rate of 1 per second behind you, and at the same time you’re being rushed down river by the current – all while your body attempts to reconcile it’s natural reactions to adrenaline, the cold water and your increasing anxiety.  The study came to a similar observation:

“Furthermore, deaths were more common in triathlons involving greater numbers of competitors. Because triathlons begin with chaotic, highly dense mass starts, involving up to 2000 largely novice competitors entering the water simultaneously, there is opportunity for bodily contact and exposure to cold turbulent water.”

In general, I would say that if an event requires a time trial start to make it work in a given venue, then one should be stopping to ask whether or not the event is too big for that venue. And, when you stop and look at all of the events that have implemented, they’ve done so because the venue simply wouldn’t accommodate the number of athletes otherwise (ether due to time or distance constraints).  The DC Triathlon, Nation’s Triathlon, Ironman Louisville, and now this year, the NYC Triathlon.  These are all events looking to push not only the field size larger within their environment, but in some cases – looking to take the crown on the largest triathlons out there. And interestingly, with the exception of Ironman Louisville, are all events that market heavily to new triathletes through various outreach programs.

Again, the key difference here is the ability for an athlete to control his or her swim.  It’s not necessarily about mass starts such as those in an Ironman race (which, for the record, I am in favor of).

Qualification and Screening: Is it the answer?

There are two concepts that have been raised over the past few days around the issue of triathlon safety and solutions.  Neither of which should be considered a panacea to keep deaths from ever happening again, because no matter what’s done – they will happen.  But one or both of these concepts would likely reduce the death rates. 

The first is around health screening.  Much of this stems from one key observation the study made about past triathlon deaths during the swim portion, which noted:

“Drowning was the declared cause of each swimming death, but 7 of 9 athletes with autopsy had cardiovascular abnormalities identified.”

While I don’t think we should go as far as to prohibit competitors from competing without a note from a doctor (though the Paris Marathon does), I do think that USAT and Race Directors could do significantly more in the realm of awareness here.  When was the last time that you registered for your USAT card and were reminded to consider getting a screening for cardiovascular related abnormalities?

How much would it take to step up a PR campaign around that?  After all, most peoples health insurance companies will happily cover such tests.  And in fact, both myself and my wife have taken the tests.  They don’t take very long and give you a bit of piece of mind that you can really push yourself.  Despite the abnormalities though, the study did note the following:

“Although the contribution of cardiovascular abnormalities cannot be definitively excluded in some cases, logistical factors and adverse environmental conditions may have been responsible for these events…”

Once again, going back to how races are run from a swim logistics standpoint.

Also keep in mind that it’s not just someone hurting themselves if they are drowning. This is because one in the midst of drowning will almost always cling violently onto anyone around them, potentially drowning both individuals.  It is well ingrained into every single lifeguards training to ensure the victim doesn’t take them down too. What if you were the defacto lifeguard?

The second idea proposed is around qualifiers. In effect, requiring one to qualify to race a different levels of events.  The logic here being that you must be able to prove your swim abilities to some degree.  It was noted that during the NYC Triathlon some 26 people were pulled from the water.  This is not inclusive of athletes who received kayaker assistance during the race.  Nor is it inclusive of those swimmers that received ‘swim noodles’ during the race.

For those not familiar, swim noodles were given to swimmers by kayakers who needed additional flotation to be able to finish the swim portion (and then presumably not finish the race).  The video I’ve linked to clearly shows one such swimmer (though there were many more sightings noted).  In my mind, this is a sign if a kayaker would have been logistically unable to attend to the sheer numbers of swimmers requiring assistance exiting the course.  Thus, a crutch was given to simply send them on their way.


(Side Note: It was noted in the video’s written comments that the swimmer with the noodle was a paratriathlete and thus was allowed to have the noodle.  This is not correct.  Per USAT rules, neither triathletes or paratriathletes are permitted to utilize flotation devices.  A race director may however allow flotation devices for athletes in a challenged athlete category – which is very different than the official USAT paratriathlete category.  However, a noodle is certainly not within the scope of that. Further, the NYC Race Organizers have vehemently denied that anyone started the swim course Sunday with a swim noodle.)

A qualifier would serve to ensure that a swimmer could complete the swim distance in an open water setting in a reasonable amount of time without outside assistance.  There’s been discussion around at what level this would occur, but I realistically think it would need to occur at even the shortest distance and go up from there.  Statistics show that the sprint triathlon is actually more deadly than the Olympic distance triathlons from a 1 per 100,000 participants standpoint (1.4 to 1.0):


While this would require additional administrative overhead, I suspect that this is an area where triathlon clubs, open water swimming clubs, and USAT could partner to offer either test weekends, or clinics (common already).  One could then simply test out that you could swim a given distance unassisted, prior to entering a competition with thousands of others.  It would also build confidence and lower anxiety.  For those who already compete, this could easily be waived with a past swim result.

It should be noted that one of the two athletes this weekend that died was a fairly good indoor swimmer, though this was only her second triathlon.  The first was a SheROX event in June, which are well known for being a very safe environment to get into the sport.  The other individual had no previous triathlon results that I can find (though did have plenty of running experience).  It’s certainly possible (and probably likely) that both of these athletes may have competed elsewhere that I didn’t find. Again, potentially showing the importance of health screening since one died of cardiac arrest and the other a heart attack.

Finally, qualifiers are nothing new to the triathlon or endurance sport scene.  At the faster end, events like Kona require that the lottery winners complete an event prior to going to Kona.  And many half and full marathons also require qualifying times (even if slow), merely to prove readiness and the ability to complete an event on time.


As I started off with at the beginning, it’s easy to simply forgot about this event in the day to day hustle and training.  After all, it’s likely that once this upcoming weekend rolls around they’ll be nothing more than another weekend of fun and exciting triathlons held all around the world – likely none with any triathlete deaths.

But eventually it will happen again, and the question simply becomes: Does it need to? Are there ways that as a sport we can reduce the chance of deaths during the swim in the same manner that we’ve reduced the chance of deaths during the bike segment via helmets and other safety measures (checking bar plugs at entrance to events, checking that brakes function, etc…). 

This may be accomplished through screening, or qualification.  Perhaps it’s looked at from a race design and limits standpoint.  Or perhaps we simply try and raise awareness about being prepared for the event ones signed up in, and to try and ensure realism is injected when one signs up for an event that may be out of their comfort zone. 

Regardless of the ultimate solution implemented, I think we should strive to bring the number of deaths that occur during the swim down to as close to the number of deaths that occur during the run. Zero.


Hopefully, you found this post useful. The website is really a labor of love, so please consider becoming a DC RAINMAKER Supporter. This gets you an ad-free experience, and access to our (mostly) bi-monthly behind-the-scenes video series of “Shed Talkin’”.

Support DCRainMaker - Shop on Amazon

Otherwise, perhaps consider using the below link if shopping on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but your purchases help support this website a lot. It could simply be buying toilet paper, or this pizza oven we use and love.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
If you would like a profile picture, simply register at Gravatar, which works here on DCR and across the web.

Click here to Subscribe without commenting

Add a picture



  1. Ben

    There was a death on the bike course of Ironman 70.3 Antwerp in July. A crash in a tunnel apparently.

  2. SSB

    One of the problems is we can’t say for sure if they wouldn’t have died had they not been doing a triathlon. There’s no way to know, so any #s are pretty inconclusive. We had a guy die in a swim race out here a couple months ago. He was a really good swimmer and was swimming near the front of the race, not crowded, not cold water. He was resuscitated and died at the hospital the next day (usually when that happens it means they are brain dead and the family pulls the plug). He might have survived if he had a heart attack and someone was able to get to him immediately. But even if he wasn’t swimming that might not have happened. The risk with swimming is there is a greater chance you can’t be resuscitated right away, because either people don’t notice right away, you’re not next to someone to notice right away, or it’s just hard to resuscitate someone in the water.

    The other thing is time trial starts usually put more people in the water in a shorter period of time than wave starts. There fore they also cause more congestion on the bike even though that’s one of the reasons they are implemented. For example the year they did TT start in clear water was a disaster. And my understanding is that NYC tri started late this year by about 30 minutes, yet everyone was in the water at the same time as last year. I say do away with TT starts all together.

  3. In France you need a medical certificate for any sporting competition regulated by the respective sports governing body. So for the Paris Marathon as you mentioned, but also for other tuning races, the Paris Triathlon ( this year 3000 participants, starting in two waves) and most other local triathlons. To get the certificate you need to get it signed by your regular doc. How in depth he will asses your capability to do the event will depend on his diligence. It creates at least one opportunity to get the docs opinion on the suitability of doing an event, or of getting a potentially dangerous condition detected, although in general the assessment is very light and I doubt any hard to diagnose condition will be detected in this way.

    The reason for the require certificate is as I understood it mostly for insurance purposes to protect the organizer from liability.

    I have no numbers about casualties in triathlons in France but I cannot recall any reports about deaths or severe injuries in triathlons in the last few years in triathlons, or in any of the big running events for that matter.

  4. BSS

    i think part of the problem could be solved by having a small warmup zone in the water, where the athletes can accumilate to the water and have the race start from there. (or have them come out of the water and then jump back in again)

  5. In the very first sprint tri I ever did, an experienced triathlete died in the swim portion of a heart attack. Horrible.

    With that said, I have very… negative/fatalist feelings about the cardiovascular abnormalities screening. I discovered a few years back that I have an “abnormally long atrial septum”. I was sent on my way by my cardiologist with no prescribed lifestyle changes (he knew I was a runner/triathlete), no meds, and no information on how this “abnormality” might effect me, now or in the future. I am supposed to have a follow-up visit annually. I’ve never made that visit because no one could ever tell me *why* I needed to. To get to the point: I have a cardiovascular abnormality, and I have not stopped competing. Furthermore, if I had been told to stop, I might not comply because frankly I’d rather die in a race or in training than with my fat butt glued to the couch. It is a quality of life issue. I am vehemently against race-required screenings for that very reason. It is my decision to take the “risks” that I take. I don’t want to die in a race, don’t get me wrong – old and lean would be perfect – but I think the risk is still relatively small compared to the huge risk of complications from obesity if I stopped working out.

  6. Hannes

    I learned from Gregory House, that we all have 3 or 4 minor abnormalities, that can be found I a full body scan.

    My duodenum is not at the position, where it is supposed to be, I have a spermatocele and a light mitral valve insufficiency, but neither of these things hampers me in an Ironman. So I agree with Amber, that dying during sport is not the best thing to experience, but this is death very seldom.

    This year I helped the lifeguards at Autrian Ironman to watch the swimmers, and only 7 people out of 2400 needed help (the first one was a pro with an asthma attack).

    I can’t remember, that a person died in a triathlon in Austria, but some deaths already occured in marathons and other running events. Much more people are dying every year in the alps every year, some skiing, some climbing, some hiking.

    Of course, like SSB said, in the middle of a lake you probably don’t get that fast help when in a problem compared to running or biking, so zero deaths in sport (as in life), especially in swimming, just can be guaranteed, when no human beings are participating.

  7. I’m glad you have brought up this very real and compelling issue. There does need to be attention brought to this before it gets out of hand.

    A simple PR campaign along with better and more lifeguards would do wonders.

    Side note: Most lifeguards are not prepared or trained to deal with the volume of swimmers some races have. Many are used to pool and family beaches – not 200 (or much more) people swimming over one another. The signs of struggle are totally different.

    **I was a div 1 collegiate swimmer (over 16 years experience) and still have great anxiety (heart pounding) during open water swims. I only relax / calm down near the end of the swim. I can only imagine if someone is just getting into the sport with little confidence in their swimming ability may feel.**

  8. Anonymous

    Acclimating to the conditions could do a lot to help reduce stress, lower pulses, and, presumably, lessen the chance of cardiac events.

    Race organizers who don’t allow warm-up swims (yes, you Pirhana Sports of Delaware, who don’t allow racers to even touch the Atlantic Ocean in October until the horn goes) put participants at risk.

  9. I have to disagree with SSB. I do think that the numbers are quite telling. SSB suggests that since we cannot know if the athlete would have died if they had not been doing the triathlon, we cannot link the death to the race. If that were true, you would expect to see a more or less uniform rate of death across the three disciplines. They might also suffer some rate of fatal event in the warm up or immediately post race. But for the deaths to be so heavily concentrated within the swim strongly suggests a problem with the swim.

    Finally, I strongly agree with the notion that USAT should aggressively increase education around the notion of cardiac abnormalities. First, there’s no harm in doing so. Second, though Amber suggests she’d not change her behavior regardless of a tests outcome, many might not share that POV.

  10. Before everyone gets hung up on abnormalities seen in various cardiac tests, please note that a majority of people have abnormalities that are inconsequential. I have enlarged ventricles from years of competitive rowing. I am healthy. I also have a heart murmur…again I am healthy and 2 separate doctors concur. This is not saying that all abnormalities are benign but they shouldn’t be a catchall. It should also be noted that studies have shown that long distance athletes that push there bodies for hours on end through training and racing show signs of cardiac damage, brought on simply by doing something they enjoy. Beats being a couch potato and dying from heart related illness brought on by obesity.

    I concur with the comment that swimming is inherently more dangerous due to the logistics of noticing/reacting/resuscitating someone on the swim. Whether the deaths were preventable is questionable and only can be determined by an autopsy and investigation into the cause of the eventual cardiac arrests (whether brought on by a massive myocardial infarction (heart attack) or by drowning (a form of traumatic arrest). Should variations/modifications for swim starts and safety be looked into? Maybe. Again the logistics of something like a swim are quite difficult, especially with so many people.

    It’s unfortunate that these 2 participants died last weekend. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but they were doing something they enjoyed and they accepted the risks of what they were doing when they signed their waivers. Deaths at endurance events are not new (look at the reports of recent marathoning deaths in the past few years) so we shouldn’t get hung up on this.

  11. Great review. With regards to the cold water arguments, I’d say that potentially the opposite was in play at the NYC Tri.

    As you may know, the race was delayed by about 45 minutes (due to a car accident on the bike course). This resulted in thousands of triathletes having their wetsuits on for an additional 45 minutes, with limited access to water (once you were in the corral it wasn’t impossible to get out, but it was crowded enough and the corrals offered a nice view of the swim course, so you could keep yourself occupied fairly easily).

    I was actually surprised to see so many people keep their wetsuits on while they waited for the race to begin. It was unsuspectingly humid in the morning. Yes, there was cloud cover and some occasional drizzling, but it was quite humid.

    Add to this the fact that the water was 76 degrees as of about 4:30am, when they took the measurement to determine if the race would be wetsuit legal. By the time 7:30 rolled around (around when Kudryk would’ve entered the water), it’s possible it had gotten even warmer.

    76 degrees is quite warm indeed, considering that 78 degrees is the limit for a wetsuit legal race. When I hopped in, I was surprised at how warm the water actually was.

    I contacted USAT about the 78-degree rule, and they stated that it was backed by a study from Ball State University. However, they noted that the study does not account for varying swim distances. Surely, a 1.2 mile swim in 76 degrees in a wetsuit is more detrimental than a .25 mile swim in 78 degrees.

    Now, the swim may not have been long enough to really deyhdrate someone to the point of danger, but I would argue that dehydration/overheating played a role.

    We all sweat much more than we realize when we swim. Add 1+ hour in a wetsuit in humid weather with little water, and 76 degree water temperature, and you’re putting a decent strain on your body without even knowing.

  12. It seems that then tone of your article is that panic is the cause of the swimming accidents. I haven’t seen anything to indicate this is the case. What am I missing?

  13. Anonymous

    @Tkanz I’m a swim coach for a triathlon team that ranges in abilities from extreme beginner to Kona qualifiers. Like Ray said, most first-time triathletes will say the swim portion of the race is what causes the most fear and anxiety for them. At swim practice, we teach novice athletes to stay as calm as possible in the water even when fear seems to be taking over. We teach them to calm their breathing down and to not thrash around when they become panicked. When swimmers let the fear take over, their breathing dramatically increases and the efficiency in their stroke goes to the wayside. I’ve watched countless races where beginner athletes with limited swimming experience and/or ability send themselves into a panic attack and are either pulled from the course or are forced to hang on to kayakers and buoys for support. I truly believe that anxiety leads to difficulty of breathing/increased heart rate for some of these athletes, which could trigger the underlying heart abnormalities.

    As a triathlon swim coach, I fully support all USAT sanctioned races to require an open water swim certification to compete in the event. Will this be an added time and cost burden on the athletes? Yes. But isn’t this better than the alternative?

  14. I have done 30+ races and New York this year was my first time trial start. I actually felt like it was considerably less congested than any wave start swim I have ever done. Obviously congestion is one issue with the time trial start (with the other being no chance to warm up) but as was mentioned, this was a warm swim.

  15. @Anonymous – apparently I have miss-stated my question. In another way, The reports that I read indicated that the swimmers died of cardiac arrest. How do we know that the root cause is panic? How do you know that the swimmers panicked at all? To @SSB’s point, they may have had cardiac arrest while eating lunch that same day, sans triathlon. Seems to me that we would be better to determine the root cause for the accident and THEN brainstorm solutions.

  16. The average person lives around 30 thousand days. If I divide that into night and day, assuming equal probability for both, that’s around 1.5 per 100 thousand days (and an equal rate for nights). So it seems triathletes die at about the same rate as the general population. I’d hardly call that “dangerous”.

    The death rate driving is around 1.5/million miles. So if the average triathlete drives 100 miles round trip to the race, that’s 10x the risk from driving as from the race itself, assuming all driving is equally risky.

  17. kd

    As usual this is a great article and I would like to raise one quick point. I wonder if the run fatality statistics would be different if triathlon’s started with the run? That is to say I wonder how much the position of the swim as the first sport plays in its being the most fatal. Its much easier to quit a run or a bike leg than a swim.

  18. I’d have to say I find the statement about anxiety INCREASING due to a time trial start to be completely opposite my own experiences.

    All the time trial starts I’ve been a part of have been far less crowded. No jostling. No lost goggles. No kicking. No punching (yes intentional punching, not incidental contact during a stroke).

    Indeed while there are people throughout the course, there are far less of them, and that, in my mind is what exacerbates any anxiety.

    Anyone feel differently?

  19. I swam in the NYC Tri in the wave (M40-44) immediately following that of the man who died, and I passed many in his wave (and thus, almost certainly swam past him in my swim). I agree with Markus (great points!) that the focus perhaps should be partly on the role of wetsuits – the swim was barely wetsuit legal due to warm water, yet *80%* of my wave wore wetsuits (I didn’t). Why? In addition to speed, I think a fair number of triathletes (especially beginners) use a wetsuit as a crutch – they’re not very good swimmers, and there’s really no need to become a good swimmer to be a good triathlete (your training time is best spent where the time will matter). The wetsuit provides a comfort blanket – it will help me float, so I don’t need to worry about undertraining. But in the race, the wetsuit can be claustrophobic and a cause of panic in the context of race stress, swallowing some water, a higher body temp due to heat retention, and all of the other people around. In the absence of comfort-blanket buoyant wetsuits, would people (especially beginners) train more for the swim? Would they be less likely to use a wetsuit in borderline temperature conditions, giving them greater freedom of motion that might reduce panic? Maybe one reform should be to outlaw buoyant/speed-enhancing wetsuits, and thus cause people to use wetsuits *only* in the cases when it is desired for thermal purposes, rather than for comfort-blanket or competitive purposes. (These comments do not preclude other reforms mentioned.)

    Also, the TT start at NYC was great – much much less stressful than a mass wave start.

    Side note: if we include deaths in training (not just competition), I am willing to bet that biking and running deaths far surpass swimming deaths.

  20. Anonymous

    I agree with Erick. I too find Time Trial swim starts much less stressful.

  21. Ray, I want to provide some clarification on something in your post. You state that heart rate increases in cold water. Actually, the opposite is true. The heart rate actually slows and in fact one of the treatments for a specific type of sustained tachycardia (fast heart rate) is to plunge the face in cold water. This stimulates the mammalian dive reflex, a self preservation mode by the body. If you look carefully at your older post referencing the study, it states that breathing increases, not heart rate.

    I wanted this to be clear to everyone. Thanks for the great blog post.

  22. Hi all-

    Thanks for the comments – lots of great points made on all sides of the issue!


    Good points on breathing vs HR in the linked post. With regards to the mammalian dive reflex, this is true of the face, but has been found to have no impact if just the limbs are submerged. But, when the limbs are submerged, the opposite effect occurs due to the body’s attempt to

    Here’s one relevent snippet from a study:

    “If total submersion or face immersion is absent or if breath-holding face immersion has ended, the remaining cardiovascular adjustments are a result of the initial cold stress. There is a dramatic increase in heart rate, which subsides after a few minutes but remains above preimmersion levels; the colder the water, the higher the heart rate. Other cardio-vascular sequelae of cold-induced sympathetic activation are also evident: increased systemic arte-rial pressure, increased total peripheral resistance, and increased cardiac output. During this early sympathetic discharge phase, myocardial conduction abnormalities may be observed, such as atrial and ventricular extrasystoles and sinus arrhythmias.”

    (Page 7 of this: link to bordeninstitute.army.mil)

    This post here also talks about the impact to HR after cold water exposure to the entire body:

    link to lakeice.squarespace.com

    That said – I always love doing research into things. It’d be interesting to do some different HR captures of swimmres in triathlon and see exactly what occurs during few minutes prior to and after the start of the gun in different situations.

    Thanks again everyone for dropping by.

  23. Just a comment on the swim deaths. I have a heart murmur and a slight a-fib situation. Before IM KY I went to a cardiac doc to make sure I would not die during the swim. He told me – 1. Choose to sit on the couch and one day explode or 2.Choose to do the race and explode…or not explode.

    There is no way in knowing if or when it will happen to me. I have arrythmias often but only in running and swimming. So, it is safe to say these folks probably had heart issues similar to mine and it was just their time.

    The one thing I did before IM KY was I took 3 years of swimming to ensure I was comfortable in the water and would not be nervous on race day.

    I am not sure there is a way to weed folks out from dying in the water. And for sure, the race and the sport should never be to blame.

  24. gogogo

    very interesting article.
    just having done my first ow tri, i understand about panic in the water. i am a decent swimmer, not fast.
    but when i went for my first ow practice in the lake, i had to fight panic. i had to swim back and forth between the pilons, in the semi shallow water, swim 150 yards, talk myself out of panic and swim another lap and another. the tightness of the wetsuit made me so uncomfortable, that i tried swimming without. which was a breeze.
    but since i had read about the advantage of wearing a wetsuit, i took it to the pool (84 degree water) and started swimming. the panic feeling started but subsided, since i was not in an unknown murky environment. so i kept swimming in the very warm pool. still fine 1200 m later.
    i continued practice in the lake as well with the wetsuit, and ended up wearing it during my frist sprint race, since it did make me faster and made for less effort on the swim.
    i think the overheating aspect depends on the person.
    i definitely strongly recommend that people practice swimming in a wetsuit before their race.
    (not that this necessarily was a factor at all in the nyc deaths)

  25. i’ve noticed a lot of people saying that the wetsuits constrict even fine swimmers, and contribute a LOT to the problem.. anyone know if any triathlon swim deaths have happened with NO wetsuit?

    i saw this comment on another forum that really seemed to be on target:

    “This has nothing to do with swim skills, I’m convinced that wetsuits are death-traps and that when the exertion level goes up and the heat/heart rate go up, the risk goes up. When I did Lake Placid I almost quit during the swim because I got light-headed and felt like my heart was going to explode and I felt like the constrictive and heat containing wetsuit was contributing to this. I eased back and finished, I think I was 11th or 12th out of the water. I’m not talking about swim skills. “

  26. Anonymous


    More info on one of the swimmers. Apparently she was a fish! Autopsy was inconclusive.

    link to nytimes.com

  27. Albie

    As always, great article and very informative.

    Would you kindly elaborate on which heart test you’ve under gone with respect to your statement: “After all, most peoples health insurance companies will happily cover such tests. And in fact, both myself and my wife have taken the tests. They don’t take very long and give you a bit of piece of mind that you can really push yourself. ”

    Again, great article and I’m always looking forward to reading your new posts.


  28. Drew

    Some good points, only one bad one that I see between the post and comments. Here is my $.02 on that front.

    I am all for encouraging “voluntary” participation in swim clinics, educational meetings and medical screenings. If it comes to where we require these things however, I’ll find something else to do with my time. We really need to stop forcing everyone to lower standards and jump through hoops in order to allow the lowest common denominators among us to participate safely, or at all. Now I am not saying the people who died in this race were that class of people, but trying to eliminate accidents through those means just takes all the adventure out of racing. Life was never supposed to be safe. In fact living is a terminal condition, and we should treat it as such as opposed to trying to live forever through legislation.

    We need to take our cues from the special forces community, and Jimmy Buffet. When an SF unit looses too many operators and falls below operational readiness levels, they may make training programs more accessible to potential recruits, but they never lower standards to increase passing rates and add personell.

    Jimmy Buffet sings “Id rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead”.

    We really really really need to stop trying to protect people from themselves. Losing your life is only tragic if it happens before you have had the opportunity to experience life in the first place.

    For those who have issues with wetsuits, this is a long standing battle in triathlon. That is, should wetsuits be allowed only in water cold enough to induce hypothermia?

    I don’t wear a triathlon specific suit, mostly because they are stupid expensive. If I need one I wear a surfing suit, 3mm full that one can purchase for $80, sometimes less. Even then I only wear it when the water is cold, 72 or less. It is thermal protection, not a flotation device or a swim aid. If it feels constricting it probably is, and that means it is more than one size too small, and the neoprene is being stretched to tight to give any thermal protection.

    In other words, you are using that product in a manner other than what is was designed for, strecting the material out of spec and risking problems all for an edge. Scuba divers learn early on that if the neck seal is too tight it can be very uncomfortable at best, cause a blackout at worst.

    I would suggest getting a wetsuit that fits properly and only using it when the water temp is too cold to swim teh distance safely and comfortably. If you need an edge find a way to smuggle fins into the race. If you need swim aids,perhaps lessons and training are a better way to spend your $$$.

    I know lots of pros, age groupers, coaches and companies will disagree with the above, but thats my story and I am sticking to it…

  29. Albie – We’ve both had Electrocardiogram’s – her an Excercise variant from her college athletics days, and mine a regular one primarily due to family history of heart related stuffs.

    link to webmd.com

  30. Albie

    Awesome.. Thanks for the link Ray!

  31. I was a volunteer captain at the race. I’ve also done the race a few times. I was there when they brought both athletes through the bike out/swim exit line and had to stop all traffic in both directions to let the paramedics get them to an ambulance. It was disturbing to see them performing chest compressions on her as they went.

    At a thank you dinner later that week I was sitting next to the swim director (not only for this race but many others we all do) who also was in a kayak and pulled one of the swimmers from the water. He told me something interesting about the noodles. He said that when swimmers approach the kayaks, many times they are in a panicked state and can tip over the kayaks in their effort the grab on or even climb in. He said the noodles act as a buffer to put between them and the swimmer and give the swimmer something to grab onto instead of the kayak.

    As a 44 y/o mom with Mitral Valve Prolapse, very common, I can’t stop thinking of the woman. She had three young kids and she was younger than me. I saw my cardiologist before my first ever tri to be sure I could do this and was assured I could. I also remember my first practice OW swim in a wetsuit; the chest tightness, difficulty breathing. My first meeting with the Hudson resulted in a panicked moment for me. If a kayak had been nearby, I’m sure I would have bailed. Instead I rolled over on my back, floated, talked myself off the ledge and then resumed when I felt more relaxed. It took several OW swims before I finally felt comfortable, the pool is no equal to this.

    I’ll be curious to see if anything changes with regards to this. Sorry this went so long and thanks or the great post.

  32. The “Swim It”. USAT and Ironman Approved swim safety device. Check it out! It is awesome! The Swim It was Race Approved in August, 2011 (just last year at the end of the season). You will see many more athletes using this zero velocity swim safet device. http://Www.myswimit.com

  33. Ray, I thought of this post when race directors gave participants a swim opt-out at my last two races. I wrote my own post about it here:

    link to tinyurl.com

    in case you are interested.

  34. Just re-read this after the tradegy at IM NY the past weekend and noticed a small error:

    > nearly double a common pro triathlete time on a correctly measured course

    I think that should be ‘nearly half a common pro’.. etc etc.

    Great article.


  35. Thanks for the catch – fixed!

  36. Cathy

    Why are athletes driven to risk their lives to compete in such a grueling sport? What exactly is accomplished by such endeavors? Are relationships with friends and family enriched or ignored by all your training and time away from home? Does finishing a triathlon contribute to society in a meaningful way? Are all your efforts, time, energy and resources being used to make the world better a place? How will those you love remember you after you are gone? I am really interested in your answers I am trying to understand the motives and mindset of someone who spends all their free time constantly training for the next triathlon.

    • DC Rainmaker

      It’s only as grueling as you make it.

      And you only need train as much as you feel necessary. Some folks train very little, and some all the time. Each have different goals in mind. Some to finish for the experience, and some perhaps set on the Olympics (both would be the case in the NYC Triathlon, as I personally know athletes that competed there in both of those categories).

      Obviously, each person defines whether or not triathlon contributes to society in their mind. I’d like to think it helps drive people towards being healthy – which is ultimately the cornerstone of a health and thus happy society.

      But not everyone ones does in life has to contribute to society. Be it going to get an ice cream cone at a shop on a Saturday instead of volunteering that time, or whether it’s sitting at home watching TV, or commenting on an internet post. Each person defines how they want to spend their time. And I’m certainly not here to judge anyone else in that area.

      Just my two cents.

    • Cathy

      Thanks Rainmaker, I appreciate your answer. I think some people may get so addicted to the training high that they neglect other important aspects of their life but it doesn’t sound like you do. Encouraging people to be healthy is a very good thing indeed but not if you are harming yourself in the process, again it sounds like you are cautious to avoid this but others might not be. I agree that not everything one does needs to contribute to society, I’m just looking at the huge amount of time needed to train for these events and wonder how people have any time left to maintain healthy relationships. I’m not judging either just playing devil’s advocate. I think triathletes are outstanding individuals, to me they exemplify so many good values; perseverance, passion, disciple, commitment, courage, tenacity, strength, optimism, patience, etc. No question, triathletes contribute to society by their remarkable example. Just don’t want them to forget they have people in their lives who love them:)