Coach Gerry Rodriguez is one of the nation’s leading experts in open water swimming. He’s coached many of the world’s top triathletes and open water swimmers from his famed program, Tower 26, in west Los Angeles. For years Gerry has been a strong advocate of formalized safety procedures in open water swimming. Last week ESPN’s ran a feature, “Trouble Beneath the Surface” , which explores the rapidly increasing number of triathlon deaths that occur on the swim leg. According to the article, there have been 44 deaths in triathlons during or immediately following the swim leg. Last March Coach Gerry published the following article on his blog and we’re sharing, with his permission, to help continue the safety efforts in this rapidly growing segment of swimming.
Do you enjoy triathlons? Are you a performance addict, and is competition seductive to you? And perhaps most importantly, are you smart?
If you answered YES to these questions, then you owe it to yourself to think carefully about one more: What is your personal temperature limit in triathlons or open water swim races? That is, at what water temperature would you make the decision NOT to participate? Mine were 58 degrees on the lower end and 84 on the upper spectrum, non-wetsuit, both learned from bad experiences. Eventually I raised the lower temp to 60: I simply did not enjoy cold temperatures.
Deaths in open water during a triathlon have become disturbingly common. Particularly troubling is that, given the decisions by organizers not to cancel events despite potentially lethal temperatures, such deaths appear now to have become regarded as somehow acceptable. Just this past weekend, yet another triathlete passed away in the Alcatraz triathlon. The official report is that the water temperature was 51 degrees; ominous enough. However, credible unofficial sources are saying it was more like 49. And it’s not just the cold: open water swimming lost one of its brightest stars when champion Fran Crippen succumbed during a 10k race in 89 degree water.
Should upper and lower racing temperature limits, or ‘collars’ be set? And if so, who is responsible for setting those collars: the National Governing Bodies (NGBs), the race directors, or the participants? Who is the most responsible, really? We can debate the role of all involved, but here is what YOU, the participant, need to do:
• Receive medical clearance for training and racing.
• Hire a coach or get on a reputable and proven training plan.
• Spend ample time preparing for the distance.
• Spend ample time preparing for all types of racing conditions: cold water, warm water, currents, winds, low visibility, blinding reflection and sun, choppy waters, big surf conditions, rip tides.
• Acquire the skills of proper and frequent navigation.
• Become very familiar with swimming in very close quarters to others.
• Familiarize and prepare yourself for the discomfort from contact at race starts, buoy turns and swim “claustrophobia”.
• Practice in open water with a group, simulating race-like conditions.
• Have a proper-fitting wetsuit that is tested and familiar prior to racing.
• Have a real swim race plan, not simply “I just want to get to my bike”.
• Warm up properly.
• Start to the side of your group.
• Only swim fast at the beginning if it was part of your training preparation.
• Use rhythmic breathing with a 2nd-stroke frequency; no 3rd-stroke or higher breathing.
• The moment you have difficulty, roll over on to your back and wave your arms for assistance.
• Establish personal temperature collars, and adhere to them.
Participants who are responsible enough to arrive at races well prepared would solve a lot of the problems—but not all of them. What else can be done? Here are my messages to the three key constituent groups of our sport.
TO THE NATIONAL GOVERNING BODY and RACE DIRECTORS:
Here’s my opinion: Temperature collars ARE needed; both lower AND upper guidelines. The NGB needs to institute and enforce these temperature collars. You have a responsibility to your members as a whole to preserve their safety when the individual won’t. You also need to provide some education to membership regarding preparation. The same applies to race directors, but you have an additional responsibility: accept the need for, and make it easy for participants to perform, proper warm-ups. But both groups, NGB and director, are apparently being seduced by some combination of more races on the calendar, securing greater visibility for the sport, and more revenue. So be it: financial realities are what they are. However, at bare minimum, set collars regarding water temperatures in competition.
To THE COACHES:
Our duty here is education, training and skill development—and careful encouragement. Encourage preparation, but discourage racing in 51 degree water. We discouraged racing Alcatraz to particular individuals, and yet some still decided to participate. The next best thing we can do is fully prepare the athlete.
TO THE INDIVIDUAL PARTICIPANT:
Would you attempt Everest if not prepared? I would think most would say no, but some would still try. Would you attempt Everest if not prepared, knowing that many love you and DEPEND on you? What if you are a parent to children, a husband or wife, brother or sister in a loving family, a favored uncle or aunt, a coach or teacher, a best friend, a CEO: Perhaps you would give the challenge second thoughts? This is the question you must ask yourself when making decisions about the swim portion of a triathlon.
When weather turns bad on Everest’s summit, many aspiring climbers are forced to turn around, either by caring guides and supporters (who adhere to strict protocols on summit safety) or by smart climbers who have deeply considered the decision framework that will lead to the outcome of climbing onward or turning around. In triathlon, with the dangers of the swim, the same protocols and thought need to go into the Race Director’s decision of whether or not to allow a swim to occur, and into the individual participant’s personal decision as to whether to jump into the water.
Please make sure you are FULLY prepared for the swim portion when entering a triathlon, and think about the parameters when you might make the tough decision to pass up the chance to race. Some Everest climbers train all year, arrive prepared, go through all the hard work… only to be turned back a few hundred feet from the summit. Sometimes that is the right decision. The same can be said for your triathlon. No matter how hard you have trained…. and how much you have sacrificed, SOMETIMES it is better to turn before the summit… and still wake up in the morning.
As a coach, a dedicated former athlete, parent, brother, uncle, best friend and life enthusiast, my humble view is that the ultimate responsibility lies with the participant. And so to all participants, I say: Take proactive action now; somebody loves you and wants you around.