Are triathlon swims getting safer?

Recent deaths have highlighted the problems lurking below the surface for triathlon swimmers. Nigel Roddis Getty Images

Lance Thompson didn't care how long it would take him to complete the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon on the first Sunday in June.

As he jumped into the San Francisco Bay from a ferryboat near the famous prison island in one of the most unusual starts in the sport, Thompson was focused on keeping his emotions in check, stroke after stroke, and simply getting through the 1.5-mile swim.

Ross Ehlinger, Thompson's close friend and training partner from Austin, Texas, died during the same swim last year. Authorities deduced that Ehlinger had a lethal cardiac arrhythmia, but like many of the 47 fatalities in the swim leg of U.S. triathlons over the last eight years, the catalyst for cardiac arrest was difficult to pinpoint.

His arrhythmia could have been triggered by a pre-existing heart condition or the stress of the unusually cold, choppy conditions last year -- when the 34-year-old race was held in early March -- or a combination of factors.

Thompson, 51, said tears welled in his eyes occasionally during all three legs of the race.

"I've never been so happy to get out of that water,'' said Thompson, a veteran triathlete who wore Ehlinger's bib No. 1566 -- a number event organizers retired after the race.

"It brought back a lot of bad memories. It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done mentally, but I think it was good for me to do it.''

Ehlinger's death and other losses are on the minds of many, with the busiest part of the 2014 triathlon season in the United States well underway. Several developments are indicative of a deeper, industry-wide discussion about the issue, spurred by the fact that the great majority of fatalities in the sport take place during the swim leg.

Two triathlon participants have died in 2014, both in the swim leg of early season races in Florida. According to research compiled by "Outside the Lines,'' this brings the total number of triathlon fatalities in U.S. events to 55 since the start of 2007, all but eight in the swim leg.

Some recent developments:

• For the first time, USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body, has established water temperature guidelines for race directors in events it sanctions. The minimum and maximum "collars" -- which have also been applied to existing competitive rules regarding wetsuits -- were developed by a task force and approved by the USAT Board of Directors before the season began.

USAT is also collecting post-event data from race directors as part of its sanctioning process, including water temperature readings, the number of participants who are rescued from the water or do not finish the swim, and the total number of participants who are examined by medical personnel. Officials say the information will be used to help develop future safety initiatives. And the same USAT task force that recommended the water temperature guidelines has been authorized to examine other safety issues, according to CEO Rob Urbach.

USAT spokesman Chuck Menke said the governing body has not decided whether the temperature collar guidelines will become firm rules at a later date. He said it is too early in the process to draw any conclusions from the data gathered so far, and he did not know of any races that have been shortened or cancelled specifically because of the new guidelines.

"The rationale for [the guidelines] has been socialized and seems to be well-understood and accepted,'' Menke said via e-mail.

Most open water safety experts interviewed by "Outside the Lines" said the guidelines are a good first step but would prefer to see them made hard and fast.

"Recommended means I can run a race in 33 degrees or 133 degrees,'' veteran triathlon coach Gerry Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues said he is convinced that the shock of entering very cold water is one of several variables -- anxiety, adrenaline, physical contact, an unfamiliar wetsuit -- that can combine to make a triathlon start potentially perilous. He said he does not hold ocean-training sessions in his southern California program unless the water is at least 60 degrees, and he requires his swimmers to warm up before starting the intense portion of their workouts.

• The World Triathlon Corporation, parent company for the Ironman brand, is expanding its SwimSmart program in North America this season. Two more Ironman events -- new races in Boulder, Colorado, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, in August and September, respectively -- will feature self-seeded "rolling" starts, a more orderly format thought to be safer than traditional mass starts.

In a rolling start, participants flow through a start arch, reducing jostling and crowding in the water, and making the situation easier for athletes and water-safety personnel to navigate. That start format was used for the second straight year at last weekend's full 140.6-mile Ironman in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and will be implemented again at the Lake Placid, New York, race on July 27.

A few more Ironman events will keep experimenting with modified, self-seeded "wave" starts. The WTC also is continuing its enhanced course safety and athlete awareness efforts.

"We're happy so far with it,'' WTC CEO Andrew Messick said of the SwimSmart initiatives in an interview earlier this year. Fewer swimmers had to be pulled out of the water in those events compared to previous years, he said, and participants, "broadly speaking,'' accepted or were pleased with the new formats.

"Clearly there's an appetite for, 'How do I prepare for the best swim I can have?''' Messick said. "There are always going to be people who say, 'This isn't as advantageous to me.' But even the very speedy understood the larger context and what we were trying to do. It makes for a safer race.''

There are still bugs to be worked out. Official video from the start of last November's Ironman Florida, where participants were asked to self-seed when they entered the water, shows more congestion in the pounding surf than Messick would have liked.

"[The start] didn't work as well as we would have hoped,'' he said. "It was a rough day with a lot of chop.''

Messick said instructions to athletes competing under new formats in the Ironman series will be "directive and forceful'' this season.

• This month, Dr. Kevin Harris of the Minneapolis Heart Institute obtained institutional review board approval from that entity to conduct a sequel to his study of triathlon swim deaths that covered 14 fatalities in the United States from 2006-08. Harris, a clinical cardiologist, whose research is the only scientific study of the subject in the U.S. to date, said he wants to take his examination "to another level" and will target cases going back to 2003.

Harris will seek to augment autopsy data by interviewing as many families as possible about the medical history, risk factors and training habits of the deceased, to see if he can identify any common themes. He also will seek to include the accounts of people who survived cardiac events in the water. Harris said families will receive notification of the study from USAT and can opt in or out as they choose (a decision made to preserve their confidentiality), but he stressed that his study is totally independent of the governing body in its funding and methodology.

Underlying cardiac conditions are thought to have played a part in both of the triathlon swim fatalities thus far this year. Donald Green, 57, who died in choppy water off Naples, Florida, in the HITS triathlon Jan. 12, 2014, had significant atherosclerosis, according to the Collier County Medical Examiner's report. Donald Bautel, 64, died on April 19, 2014, after being pulled from the water at the Escape from Fort DeSoto triathlon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dr. Dollett T. White of the Pasco and Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office, who conducted Bautel's autopsy, said an enlarged heart and evidence of hypertension led her to conclude that a cardiac event probably preceded his drowning.

• Former U.S. Coast Guard officer and veteran ocean lifeguard Dan Ingalls, who is employed by WTC as a swim coordinator for some Ironman events, is advising USAT on an unpaid basis this season and hopes to serve as a voice for water safety professionals. Ingalls said he will be keenly interested in what the data collected from race directors shows at season's end in terms of how many rescues and assists were made in the water.

"A myriad of things" contribute to triathlon fatalities, Ingalls said.

He maintains that one variable that can and should be controlled is the quality of lifeguard services, because spotting distress signs and rescuing people in open water is very different than being a lifeguard on a pool deck. USAT currently sets minimums for lifeguard-per-participant ratios in sanctioned events but leaves their qualifications up to race directors. Some waterfront municipalities require their own personnel to be involved.

"I want to be part of the solution,'' Ingalls said, adding that it's crucial for lifeguards to train and communicate effectively with volunteers who are working as spotters in events. However, upgraded services and personnel would mean higher event costs, he said.

"We have become comfortable with and dependent on volunteerism, and that is creating a haphazard approach,'' Ingalls said. "As an industry, we have to accept the higher price tag of professionalism.''