Race Panic During Open Water Swimming and Triathlons


After years of staring at a black line, many former collegiate swimmers branch out into some form of open water swimming.  Like Michigan Wolverine and National Team member Andy Potts, many swimmers evolve into triathletes.

Like Andy Potts, former Princeton University distance swimmer, Tara Martin, has followed swimming into the open water and triathlons.  But, her path has not led her to the starting line at these competitions.  Instead, Dr. Martin checks in at the medical tent, where her goal is getting everyone to the finish line safely.  Dr. Martin graduated from Princeton University in 2000 as an Academic All-American and University Record Holder in distance freestyles.

After graduating Princeton, Dr. Martin competed in open water swimming events while conducting medical research in Sydney, Australia.  Later, during her emergency medicine residency, she developed an interest in triathlete safety after noticing that most of the medical problems arose from the swim portion of the competition: “I’ve spent my whole life either swimming or studying medicine, so you would hope that I could help make swimming safer from a medical standpoint.”

Every year, triathlons become more popular, appealing to former collegiate swimmers and also inexperienced swimmers.  With this increase in participation comes an increased concern for athlete safety. Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) has pointed out that the swim portion of triathlons is by far the most dangerous.  From 2006-2008, fourteen triathletes died during fourteen triathlons. Thirteen of those fourteen deaths occurred during the swim portion of the race.  Many sources have attributed the deaths to cardiac abnormalities. However, according to JAMA, autopsies have shown that at least 22% of swimmers did not die from cardiac causes, calling into question whether cardiac problems are wholly responsible for swimming deaths.

While many athletes carry underlying cardiovascular risk factors, other causal factors now seem at least equally important.  The Washington Post noted that some of the environmental and logistical race factors might cause the triathlete to panic in the water.This race panic hypothesis is supported by anecdotal evidence from some of the world’s best swimmers.  For example, Andy Potts has recently come forward with his race panic experiences: “Panic attacks could be going on inside your head, but they’re very real. You feel like the walls are closing in, the ceiling is shrinking down…”  Despite the growing empirical evidence, there have been no scientific studies to date on the factors causing race panic during the swim portion of triathlons.  Dr. Martin set out to investigate this area.

During her tenure as George Washington University Hospital’s Chief Resident in Emergency Medicine, Dr. Martin has been studying race panic among triathletes.  Her interest in the area crystallized after she treated 26 swimmers that were pulled out of the water during the 2012 Nations Triathlon in Washington DC.  According to Dr. Martin, “as we pulled these athletes out, many confided in me, ‘I just don’t know what happened, I just was so overwhelmed out there.’ Trying to understand what was happening in the open water was what got me so interested in this topic.”

Dr. Martin drew on the medical literature to design a study probing the causes of race panic with hopes of mitigating those factors.  Her research was supported by SwimSpray, LLC, maker of a chlorine removal product designed for swimmers and triathletes.

Race Panic Appears to be Common During Open Water Swims

Surprisingly, 52% of athletes expressed feeling overwhelmed or fearful during the swim portion of triathlons.  Of those athletes, 6% withdrew because they panicked during the swim.  According to Dr. Martin, “[t]he beginning of the swim appears to be the most stressful for athletes, with many of them citing the volume of people around them and the propensity to get hit or kicked as a stress inducing factor.”

Notably, women panic more than men during the swim, 56% to 44%.

While a variety of factors contribute to the onset of panic, many athletes report that being kicked or pushed was especially stressful.

Training (Or Just Talking) with Other Swimmers Helps Lessen Race Day Stress

Dr. Martin also surveyed the athletes that have been able to overcome their fears.  Most said that having more training in open water, in the pool, or racing itself has helped them overcome their fears.  Additionally, swimmers with team experience are less likely to panic on race day.  And, organized training (with other swimmers) helps panic-prone swimmers reduce stress during subsequent competition.  People also said that talking with other triathletes who have experienced race panic has been helpful.

As far as the race logistical factors, many say a more staggered start to the swim portion has been helpful in alleviating some of the stress.

In sum, a growing body of evidence and research suggests that we should reconsider the notion that open water swimming deaths are caused by a genetic predisposition.  This is excellent news for the community because it means that swimmers can prepare to swim safely rather than accepting potential fatality as part of the sport.

About SwimSpray

SwimSpray was invented by Dr. Andrew Chadeayne, a former Princeton University swimmer and chemistry Ph.D. from Cornell University. Tired of smelling like chlorine after his swimming workouts, Andrew set out remove chlorine from hair and skin ( SwimSpray works where so many other chlorine removal products (e.g., swimmers’ shampoos) have failed previously because SwimSpray’s all-natural vitamin C based formula breaks this bond, neutralizing the chlorine, and allowing it to be washed away with your favorite soap or shampoo. Follow him on Twitter @swimspray and fan him Facebook.

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What confounds me is will a panic attack cause one to faint in the water? This is deadly. A panic attack will pass but more panic attacks can follow. I would not care as much about the panic attacks if I knew I would not faint/blackout in the water. I would also like to know if the panic is caused by the heart beating too much? I swam long distances for about 13 years but once I swam too hard, too far, in water too cold water, in a disturbed emotional state and could not swim anymore and had to float very far back to shore. Now I get panic attacks when not very far away from shore. I want… Read more »

I am a Red Cross swim instructor, with very little open water swimming experience. I just had a panic attack, that resulted in a heightened awareness, and desire to increase my skill level in open, cool water, and wanting to persist in educating others, for the sake of drowning prevention, without deterring people from swimming. I have been teaching in pools for 12 years, and was introduced to swimming, with water wings, but, now, strongly speak against them, and toward repeat, methodical, practice, for growth. i worked at Dynamo, in Atlanta, and seven other pools, and find Dynamo to be the best. For Open water, preparedness through knowledge, and defensive technique should supercede, any notion of swim course, requrement, like… Read more »

Re: Dave, Yes, there is a definite change in blood pressure when swimming open water due to being horizontal, so you get that dizzy sensation at times, so you are not alone here. I’ve never experienced a full panic attack with it though, but I definitely suffered mild hyperventilation in the first half of a triathlon when I was a beginner. I got over these ‘mild attacks’ by doing a lot of pool swims in busy lanes, swimming with others, and taking part in many events. You get very used to the the ‘washing machine’ starts after 4 or 5 events, There are tricks like lining up at the side of a mass start event which most times gave me… Read more »

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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