Sports Law • Risk Management

NYC Triathlon and Open Water Swims: A Sport of Extreme Sorts

Today as I was swimming laps, I experienced fluid buildup in my lungs. The fluid made it hard to catch my breath, but my stubbornness made it even more difficult to stop swimming before I was done with my set. Not being able to breathe, however, induced a bit of panic, which increased when I had a flash that the lifeguard, who had early been distracted flirting with a guy on the pool deck, might not be paying enough attention to me should I need rescued. At that moment, I recognized that I was responsible for my well-being and that I should not fully trust that someone else would save me, even if it was that person’s job to do so. With that acknowledgement, I stopped swimming until my throat cleared enough to finish my set. This experience left me contemplating about the recent deaths that occurred during the swim segment of the New York City (NYC) Triathlon and what the athletes may have experienced during the race.

The NYC Triathlon, like many other triathlons, has an open water swim, with a series of wave starts. The first time I did an open water swim, my adventure was complicated with murky water, a terrible glare from a low hanging morning sun, and an unfamiliarity with sighting for buoys or swimming in large groups. I experienced a bit of panic whenever I was kicked or bopped in the head by a fellow swimmer and I was more than frustrated when I followed a swimmer who was off-course. Fortunately, I had no health issues to speak of, I had a lot of great advice from experienced triathletes on how to handle the challenges in the swim, and I had a lot of practice training in a pool over the years. While there is more I could have done to be ready, some jump into similar waters with even less preparation.

As the former risk manager for USA Triathlon (USAT), as a person who has competed in some triathlons, and as someone who has actually attended the NYC Triathlon race in the past, I have a good grasp of what is typically experienced in the open water swim segments of triathlons. The bottom line is that triathlon is an extreme sport. Athletes competing in an event should be in prime physical health and should be physically and mentally trained to participate in a particular event. In fact, athletes competing in a USAT event acknowledge the inherent dangers of the sport and sign off to being in good health and capable of enduring the physical and mental challenges.

Extreme sports, such as triathlon, are not for everyone and they are certainly not for the meek. For instance, you have to be willing to take a few chops in an open water swim to successfully navigate through the water. You also have to recognize when you are overwhelmed and be willing to know when to stop and ask for help from lifeguards or others nearby. Of course accidents happen and health conditions arise suddenly and with no warning signs to the victim, and muscle cramps, fluid buildup on the lungs, strokes and heart attacks are just a few of the health problems one can experience during a swim.

Certainly nothing can temper the loss experienced by the families of those who died while competing in the NYC Triathlon. But, let this be a reminder that ultimately, we all should take it seriously that if and when warning signs arise, we should make smart decisions in regards to our own health and safety.