3 Triathletes Die During Swim Portion in 2 Weeks in Central Wisconsin

2 competitors have died after the conclusion of the Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin triathlon last weekend in Madison. Both athletes died in the swim portion of the event, which continues to be by-far the most dangerous portion of a triathlon.

38-year old Todd Mahoney, a firefighter with the Madison Fire Department, was found unresponsive in the water on Lake Monona on Saturday morning. About an hour earlier, 61-year old Michael McCulloch was also found unresponsive in the water.

Both men were transported to a hospital. McCulloch was declared dead shortly after arriving, while Mahoney was in critical condition for 2 days before eventually dying on Tuesday. Both men are believed to have suffered ‘medical events’ in the water, with the medical examiner declaring McCulloch’s death a drowning as a result of a medical event.

A week earlier, a 59-year old man died in the swim portion of a triathlon in neighboring Jefferson County.

According to a 2016 study by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, deaths and cardiac arrest during triathlons is not all-that-rare. After reviewing data from about 9 million triathlon participants in a 31-year period, statistics they found:

  • About 1.7 deaths per 100,000 people occur in triathlon
  • The majority of those deaths and cardiac arrests occurred in men who were middle-age and older
  • Deaths occurred at a higher rate in first time participants
  • Most deaths in triathlons came during the swimming portion
  • They found a total of 135 sudden deaths, resuscitated cardiac arrests, and trauma-related deaths.

Between 1985 and 2016, 109 of those 135 events resulted in deaths, with 72 occurring in the swim, 20 occurring in the cycling portion, and 17 occurring in the run. Deaths in cycling events were primarily due to trauma caused by collisions.

Swimming is both the first leg and the shortest leg (by time and distance) of most triathlons.

Due to the high risk of undetected cardiovascular disease in those who have died, experts have recommended better screenings for participants.

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Chooch

I’d be curious to see similar data for open water swims—where the participants are primarily swimmers, rather than triathletes.

JFG

I only recall Fran Crippen death back in 2009 or 2010? Not heard of any others death in Open Waters

DLSwim

I’ve participated in many open water races over the past 25 years and I’ve never been in a race where someone died. I’ve also participated in a few triathlons (~5), and in one of them (70.3) someone did die, but on the bike portion from a heart attack.

swifter

Fran Crippen’s death is a completely different issue. Crippen raced in super warm water, in which no race should be held. He died – likely due to the heat – after about 9 kms of the 10 km race.

Tina

I participated in the swim portion of a 70.3 relay. Too many triathletes are barely making forward progress. They often swim Breaststroke because they are not confident in the water and to sight. I was later told they are “coached”;to float through the swim.
It is unsafe for all involved.
Some wear wetsuits too tight. Some panic in cold water.
They basically are unprepared.

BaldingEagle

There is a big discussion on this very race on the triathlon forum in http://www.slowtwitch.com. There are also several other threads that have gone up over the years regarding swim deaths in triathlon. There are several conjectures and theories explaining these deaths. Some of these include inexperience in swimming among triathletes (little history in swimming and very little training and technique work); very rapid HR in the early stages of the swim, especially when entering cold water without a sufficient warmup; anxiety about water, currents, waves, etc; constrictive wetsuits that impinge breathing; panic during early stages when there are lots of elbows flying and whitewater (the “washing machine”); heart abnormalities; and some other theories. The contrast in regards to cycling… Read more »

BaldingEagle

There is a big discussion on this very race on the triathlon forum in http://www.slowtwitch.com. There are also several other threads that have gone up over the years regarding swim deaths in triathlon. There are several conjectures and theories explaining these deaths. Some of these include inexperience in swimming among triathletes (little history in swimming and very little training and technique work); very rapid HR in the early stages of the swim, especially when entering cold water without a sufficient warmup; anxiety about water, currents, waves, etc; constrictive wetsuits that impinge breathing; panic during early stages when there are lots of elbows flying and whitewater (the “washing machine”); heart abnormalities; and some other theories. The contrast in regards to cycling… Read more »

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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