I was very sad to hear of two unnecessary deaths in the New York City Triathlon. I say unnecessary because of my experience in triathlons as an ex-water polo player. I have completed the Lake Placid Ironman five times, which has an extremely crowded swim start. This year I completed the race with an abdominal aortic stent graft, and at no time did I feel threatened in the water. The start of these races is necessarily somewhat chaotic, to the point that it is a fun challenge. If you are calm in the water under a wide range of conditions, and know your ability, the swim is actually much safer than some of the hill descents on the bike. I am not a large person, and I am now 68 years old, but extensive swim training in my teens and early twenties makes this component of Ironman races fairly relaxing to me, feeling like a warm-up to the main event. My real struggles begin on the run.
You do have to watch for people swinging their arms around, or zigzagging across the course, but if you know how to watch what is going on this is not a problem. I see people, especially those not confident in the water, struggling to control panic during the first few hundred yards. Sometimes I stop and tell them to calm down, even explaining that their swim time in the case of an Ironman distance race is not really critical for the average competitor. I have seen other competent swimmers doing the same thing. We are there to enjoy our sport, not to kill each other.
The issue is not the race, or the swim start, it is the lack of appropriate training. In such races you should be capable of keeping your wits about you in a sea of turbulent bodies, many of which are bigger and stronger than yours. The answer to this problem is training. My case attests to the fact that water polo is one effective approach to the development of the needed skills.
I would like to see this issue addressed as a necessary component of triathlon training. Adequate bike skills are also critical for the safety of competitors. I would hate to see this sport denigrated due to inadequate training of athletes for one of the most exciting segments of the race, the swim start. It is quite exhilarating if you are calm and secure in your ability. Finally, the swim portion need not be ‘intense,’ as one can hold back until the water clears a little, losing no significant time in the overall event.
I really love competing in triathlons, and I hope that our community will be able to eliminate the risk of unnecessary death during the swim through the development of rational training approaches.