There's Something in the Water

Last August, two athletes died during the swim leg of the New York City Triathlon. Since then, articles on event safety have piled up—and two more athletes have lost their lives. Is it time for USA Triathlon to rethink its rules?

Swimming in the Hudson River

Swimming in the Hudson River     Photo: Delly Carr

Let’s start with the facts about the deaths at the New York City Triathlon. At around 6 o’clock on the morning of August 7, approximately 3,800 athletes jumped into the Hudson River at a rate of 20 athletes every 10 seconds. There was a 20-minute break, after which a second wave of swimmers entered the water. They swam 1500 meters with the current in choppy, 77-degree water. About halfway through the swim, 64-year old Michael Kudryk was found unconscious and pulled from the water, the victim of a heart attack. At roughly the same point, 40-year-old Amy Martich, was pulled out of the water unconscious. She was unresponsive and later died at a New York City hospital. The cause of death was a cardiac arrhythmia.

These deaths led Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to issue a statement the day after the race calling for an exhaustive review of NYC Triathlon safety. “New York signed up for a triathlon, not a game of Russian Roulette,” he said.

The statement was a political move according to NYC Triathlon organizer John Korff. “He gave it his best shot to see if the issue had any traction,” said Korff. “He probably got 100 letters from our athletes telling him he didn’t know what he was talking about and it went away.”

Still, both Korff and USA Triathlon began to re-evaluate safety protocols in response to the recent fatalities, which were followed by a death during the swim at Ironman Louisville and another at a sprint triathlon in Maine. USA Triathlon created a five-member medical panel in October to present new safety recommendations at their annual Race Director Symposium in January.

Some think the increase in deaths is a natural result of the increase in triathlon participants. “I really don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about what happened in New York,” said Dr. Franklin Marcus, a cardiac anesthesiologist and former medical director of the Ironman World Championship. “It’s a numbers game. There’s an increase in people participating and the total number of fatalities per participants is staying roughly the same.”

About 798,000 people participated in a road triathlon in 2007, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. In 2010, participation had more than doubled to 1.9 million people. Triathletes, according to a study published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, die at events at a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 participants. Through news reports, Outside counted 6 deaths in U.S. triathlons this year. USA Triathlon could not confirm that number, or the number of people who have participated in a triathlon so far this year, as they do not maintain a database with comprehensive records for the sport.

The results from the 2010 study, which surveyed 2971 events between 2006 and 2008, determined that 13 of the 14 deaths that occurred during that time happened during the swim. Drowning was declared the cause of each of those deaths, but of the nine bodies autopsied, seven had cardiovascular abnormalities.

“It’s the least forgiving of all three events,” Marcus said. “If something happens on the bike or run, you just pull over. In the water, you can’t be seen as well by race organizers.”

Getting noticed quickly could mean the difference between life and death for a struggling athlete. This year in the water at the NYC Triathlon there was one lifeguard for every 30 participants, the ratio that USA Triathlon requires.

As a point of comparison, USA Swimming currently requires one safety craft for every 20 swimmers.  That rule was mandated after six-time national open water champion, Fran Crippen, died in October 2010 at the World Open Water Championships in the United Arab Emirates. It was the first death recorded in any event put on by FINA, the international governing body of swimming. They require everyone participating in a USA Swimming event to be an annual member of the organization and, as such, annually certify they’re “medically fit and adequately prepared for the race.” The organization does not, however, require any proof of ability to enter an event.

It’s uncertain how much additional staggering of starts could help. Currently, USA Triathlon requires three minutes between waves of no more than 150 people. Waves of no more than 20 people may start in shorter intervals, as they did at the NYC Triathlon. At Ironman events, however, mass starts of about 2,000 swimmers are common; the Ironman World Championship, a mass start race with strict entry standards, has never had a swim death. The four swim deaths this August occurred at races with wave starts and no qualification standards.

One topic that will certainly be discussed by the medical panel in January is higher athlete accountability. The New York City triathlon has already decided it will require athletes to sign a form stating that they’ve completed a half mile open water swim prior to racing in his event. But, Korf said, there’s no way to ensure participants have completed the requirement, just as there’s no way to ensure a doctor’s note clearing an athlete for competition isn’t forged. The form will be a step up from screenings that took place at this year’s event, which included 10 psychologists combing through race participants looking for panicked athletes and race officials looking for swimmers wearing wetsuits that we’re too tight or new.

How USA Triathlon will change its safety protocols remains to be seen. If you have an opinion on the matter, now is the time to make yourself heard by contacting USA Triathlon at eventservices@usatriathlon.org. If you’re going to race in a triathlon, make sure that you’re mentally and physically ready to do so. “People need to take triathlons seriously,” said Dr. Kevin Harris, author of the study on triathlon deaths. “Get in some open water swims, and talk with your physician before competing.”

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