Two Triathletes Die In Swim: The Issue Is Training, Not The Rules Of The Game

Hi folks,

Article at NPR News The Two Way. From:

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.

-k Your Medical Mind



  1. I agree, training and to some degree, race strategy would help many first time triathletes. That said, as someone who has worked in the insurance industry, I can see how situations such as this could lead to the demise of the sport. The families of these athletes will very likely file a claim against the race organizers, and despite not having done anything wrong, it will cost the organizers a lot to defend themselves. Their insurance will likely cover any settlement, but the legal costs incurred during the process will be high, and it will become difficult for them to secure future insurance coverage without heavy premiums.

    You know what would be a great follow up to this post? A list of training tips, and race strategies for the first time triathlete.

    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Janice,

      Thanks for the comments. It just occurred to me in response to your suggestion at the end, about training tips, that the first-timer or ‘scared of the swim’ person should have a mentor swimming with them for the first 500 yards to guide them into safe water. Or the organizers could make a subgroup of scared swimmers leave later? Did you want to write that post or would you like me to do it? Guest bloggers are always welcome. Good idea, though, either way. Have you seen this site?

      Concerning insurance: I was also worried about this, which in a way is why I wrote that post. All sports are dangerous, and they signed a waiver so why should there be a legal battle as long as they have a copy of the waiver?

      Keep up the cheer leading,

      -k @FitOldDog

  2. Pauline Watson says

    I completed 3 sprint triathlons in the past 7 weeks; in one I brought along 2 friends who had never done a triathlon before. The 3 races in the Subaru series all allowed for those who want to swim away from the crowd to wear white bathing caps, and start in the last wave; this is great idea. Your idea of a buddy system is also good – I was concerned about my friends, so we all swam together to the first buoy. I suggested whistles (they were insulted), and warned them about the panic that often sets in on the first leg of the swim, as you swim out into the open lake. Once you are used to it, it is sort of fun, like swimming in a school of fish!
    In last Sunday’s event, I experienced the other issue – cycling down a steep hill with sharp bends; this is something I’m not used to. I didn’t know what to expect from the course , so was braking – my husband later said I should brake going into the curve but not in it, and have my outside leg up(?) to lower my centre of gravity, but I had no training on this. I was doing 48km/h and was passed by others – I think the potential for accidents was greater here! In that particular swim, in Lake Ontario, the course was out along the shore, then a right angle, then back, still pretty close to shore.
    In summary (and sorry for being so long winded) I think that the race organizers can indeed take steps to make a race safer. I also think (after having played a bit) that water polo is absolutely wonderful training for a mass start!

    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Pauline,

      Well done on the races. Lots of food for thought on posts. Loved the white cap idea. You should go to bike skill training. It is very valuable. Yep! Center of gravity low, tilt the bike in and that leg up as it stabilizes everything. In Lake Placid I always keep my speed below 50 mph by using air brakes (sit up with wide body), as I don’t like to touch my brakes at that speed, as one false feather and down you go and road pizza here you come. You just have to learn a few tricks. You can also lower your center of gravity by increasing pressure on the pedals and going into a low tuck. I’ll write a post on bike skills and your white cap. Or better still, are you interested in writing an invited post on this issue? I would love that. Let me know, as it is very timely right now. Then I could ask Victor to write a follow-up (great cyclist and bike builder).

      I look forward to being in the same race as you.

      -k @FitOldDog

  3. Kevin Morgan says

    PS I always have a mirror in Lake Placid. Even at >40 mph (not kph) some people come screaming by me at about 60 mph (they are the slower swimmers, but amazing cyclist people), and with slow riders on the inside those guys can take you out fast. -k @FitOldDog

  4. I’m an experienced open water swimmer who’s been following the triathlon open water swimming tragedies. This isn’t just a problem with triathletes. The swimming community is also struggling with the issue of open water safety after the death of swimmer Fran Crippen in a race in Dubai last year. USA Swimming, the sanctioning body for age group swimming, implemented many changes in how open water races are conducted, from the allowed temperature range to the number of safety personnel. US Master’s Swimming is likewise changing their open water rules.

    My sense from working out with and talking to triathletes is that swimming is the weakest link for a great many people. Some folks skimp on swim training because they think it’s boring; others may not have easy access to a pool. It takes time and patience to learn proper swimming technique and get into good swimming shape — something that a casual triathlete may not realize! And then there’s the transition from a nice, safe pool to the murky open water. Even some experienced competitive swimmers get uneasy about swimming without lane lines and walls, let alone novice triathletes. The triathlon swim start seems particularly intimidating to beginners!

    Here are some suggestions from a swimmer’s point of view to help triathletes prepare for the open water swim leg:

    – Practice, practice, practice. The more you swim, the more comfortable you will be in the water.

    – Join your local master’s swim team. They’ll give you an intense, coached swimming workout. Master’s teams welcome people with a wide range of swimming ability, from inexperienced swimmers to ex-Division I athletes. Your coach will put you in a lane with people who swim at the same speed you do and will work with you to improve your stroke. Don’t worry, you won’t be the only triathlete.

    – Do some open water swimming before the triathlon. Go to a lakefront beach, bay beach, etc. and swim around a bit to practice sighting and get used to not having walls and lane lines. Practice swimming in your wetsuit. Sign up for an open water swimming race just to get used to race conditions and see how you do. The idea is to get used to open water swimming in a less stressful environment than a triathlon race, so that you’ll be better prepared for swimming and less likely to panic during the race.

    – Wait 15 seconds at the start for the pack to dive in, then get in the water. It’s better to lose a few seconds at the beginning of the race than it is to be stressed out or kicked in the head. You can make up the time later on during the run and bike.

    – Mentally prepare yourself for the shock of the water. Take long, easy strokes until you feel comfortable and find your rhythm. If you get disoriented or go off-course, pop your head up, do a bit of breaststroke, and look around.

    – If you feel that you physically can’t complete the swim, get out. Same goes if you feel unsafe.

    Hope this helps! I’ve found open water swimming to be challenging and a lot of fun.

    • In the Royal Navy we were given experiences of open water in mid ocean as a part of survival training. ( they traine for everything that ships crews have experienced in their history!) I was frequently in boat crews, usually as bowman. I had superb balance and could stay standing most of the time despite the sea condition.
      I noted that after riding waves tossed about in a boat, actually swimming in those waves was not at all a problem. I was tuned into their wave length!
      It seems to me that open water swimming may possibly be made safer for swimmers with a better sense of balance.
      This may seem countre-intuitive (swimmers cannot fall over can they!) but it ought be remembered open water is rarely still water. It is in constant motion. Understanding the fluid motions within which you are swimming could enhance performance and reduce the amount of energy wasted fighting against these fluid motions and enable swimmers to work with them.
      I noted that even strong swimmers soon got tired in open water whilst I seemed not to tire as quickly.

      • Kevin Morgan says

        Hi Trevor,

        You’re right about the critical nature of balance skills during swimming. I include balance work in my swim workouts. They started from what I learned from studying Total Immersion (TI) swimming (, and evolved from there. In fact, you need to optimize your balance in the water from stem to stern and port to starboard and all ‘around the clock’ in between. Many swimmers waste a lot of energy fighting their own poor balance skills in the water. I am not a fast swimmer, but I am a very relaxed swimmer (people comment on this), which I attribute to having worked on my balance skills in the water under a wide range of conditions.

        Another important skill, that keeps you high in the water (reducing drag) is the head-to-toe balance point (fulcrum) that needs to be as anterior as possible, and which is achieved through head and shoulder positioning with respect to your upper trunk. It is possible to float face down with your heels out of the water, but it takes practice, then you expend little or no effort staying high and stable in the water. This I learned more recently from my last coach, Eric Bean, of Fast Forward Triathlon Coaching.



    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Mermaid,

      Sorry for the delayed reply. Your comments are definitely insightful and helpful. I started out as a water polo player, which helped with confidence in the water and the ability to see what is happening, but it didn’t do much for my long distance pace, but I’m working on it. Never too late to try!

      If you interested in writing this up as an invited post, you would be only too welcome.

      Much appreciated.

      -k @FitOldDog

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.