Triathlons get another safety nudge

Three-time Ironman champ Craig Alexander favors increased safety measures for triathlon swims. AP Photo/Chris Stewart

A 50-year-old man suffered cardiac arrest during the swim portion of the New York City Triathlon last Sunday. The man turned blue and wasn't breathing, but he was eventually revived.

That story had a happy ending, but swim deaths during triathlons have become an increasing issue in recent years.

Three-time Ironman world champion and two-time Ironman 70.3 champion Craig Alexander was in New York earlier in the month and spoke openly about the challenges facing swimmers in triathlons.

"It's like when you read about car accidents and it's like, 'We've reduced the road toll to under 100.' That's still too many," Alexander said. "There's always work to do. You can never be complacent or relaxed on that sort of stuff."

Alexander is a native of Australia, where the vast majority of the population lives on the coast. He was taught to swim at an early age as part of his elementary and prep school curriculum, and required to swim eight lengths of an Olympic-size pool. If students were unable to do so, they were trained and coached until they passed.

In the United States, the swimming culture is different and there is far less emphasis on it. As the popularity of triathlons grows, runners and bikers are rushing into the sport with less of a swimming background.

"Most people can run, whether it's when they play football, soccer or softball. Most people have bikes they learn to ride. Swimming is one of those things that is very technique-dependent and you need to learn that technique to be proficient," Alexander said.

"The best swimmers learn as children and lay down those neuromuscular pathways, which stays with you for life."

Once amateur athletes learn to swim, though, the challenge is not always over. Many triathlons are held in open water with currents, such as the Hudson River in New York.

"It's almost a claustrophobic feeling. No doubt, that's one big thing that people struggle with," Alexander said. "I've known people that are 15 years into the sport and still struggle with that. The only way you overcome it is by exposing yourself to it often."

Alexander noted the safest races are the ones that manage to control most of those variables. At the same time, there is a responsibility on the athletes to do their own research on the race and properly prepare for the challenge.

"Ultimately these races are a challenge and its incumbent on every athlete, professional or amateur, to prepare their bodies for what the demand is," Alexander said. "If you're a mountain climber and you want to go to Everest, you need to develop the skill set to make that happen."

Some of Alexander's ideas for legislation or rule changes are not meant to make the sport easier, but safer. Those two goals are sometimes mutually exclusive, but there needs to be a balance between the two.

For instance, the use of wetsuits by amateurs and professionals is a point of debate. Governing bodies USA Swimming and FINA have set minimum and maximum water temperatures for open water races, but USA Triathlon has only recommended temperature guidelines. There are USAT guidelines in place dictating when wetsuits can be worn.

"Maybe there needs to be different rules implemented. The amateurs really love swimming in the wetsuit, because it's that buoyancy factor that helps. As a professional, I don't like them," Alexander said. "You should only be able to wear them when the water temperature dictates.

"I think the cut-off temperatures should be different for professionals than for amateurs. You're making rules for different reasons. For a professional, if the water is so cold that hypothermia is an issue then you need a wetsuit. It shouldn't be an issue that a professional athlete needs it for buoyancy."

Another issue is the experimentation with wave starts and rolling starts for the swims that begin triathlons. Purists sometimes see the bumps and bruises from jumping into the water with 2,000 other people as battle scars. However, the World Triathlon Corporation has experimented with waves starts and Alexander is in favor of them.

"Everyone wants to be right in the thick of the melee," Alexander said. "It's like a marathon race, where unless you can go out with the Kenyans or Ethiopians, you're not going out with the front row."

Some triathlons have followed the format of major marathons where a previous personal best time is submitted so athletes of similar ability can be grouped together. Self-seeding is based more on trust and honesty. In a self-seeded race, Alexander advises that an amateur who is not a great swimmer stays toward the back or on the side to be safe.

"One of the things that's endearing about the triathlon is that there are not many sports where the amateurs and the professionals are on the course at the same time, racing the same course under the same conditions," Alexander said.

Now retired from the Ironman, Alexander is spending more time with his family and still training for 70.3 races. He hopes to compete for another year. More important, he is becoming an advocate for triathlon safety by providing the athlete perspective as an ambassador for the WTC.

"I get consulted on a lot of the different rule changes that they're proposing. It's good that the athletes have a voice and it's not just the pro athletes, it's all athletes," he said.

"They're the ones out on the racecourse. Let's find out what's important to them and what can be improved."