Helping Distressed Swimmers In The Open Water

Helping Distressed Swimmers In The Open Water

A 44-year-old triathlete died during the swim leg of the Ironman Coeur d’Alene over the weekend.

The tragic death brings up two issues relative to the global open water swimming community: (1) the buddy system, and (2) sportsmanship.

(1) The Buddy System

Reportedly the safety protocols and actions taken by the first responders in the Ironman Coeur d’Alene were appropriate and quickly performed according to the triathletes and others who witnessed the rescue first-hand.

But it was also reported that the triathlete who died was seen struggling before the safety staff could come to his aid.

In the heat of competition, especially when athletes are entirely focused on themselves, it is often difficult to see and know what other competitors are experiencing. Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern between a swimmer in distress and a swimmer who is simply bobbing up and down to catch their breath.

However, in 26 of the most recent deaths that have occurred in open water swimming competitions around the world, most of the first responders were reportedly other swimmers according to those at the events. Based on observations of rescues or near misses in other races around the world, this immediate swimmer-to-swimmer aid is the general rule of the sport.

In other words, when a distressed athlete is seen by other swimmers, it is most likely that the swimmers will stop and confirm everything is OK…and if not, the swimmers will stop and help. Finishing or placing immediately takes a back seat to the communal safety among the community of open water swimmers.

That mindset has been true for decades.

In the 1948 London Olympics, Greta Andersen who would later establish herself as one of the all-time marathon swimming greats fainted while leading the 400m freestyle.

As the gold medal favorite whose best time was far ahead of her competitors, her collapse in the middle of the pool was shocking. But it was another swimmer who jumped in – despite the race still going on – to save one of the most accomplished pool and open water swimmers in history.

(2) Sportsmanship

Experienced triathletes and open water swimmers have long known that they can be swum over, hit, bumped, pulled, elbowed or kicked especially at the start or around the buoys. The competitive mindset that physicality is part of the game generally means that no apologies are given and none are expected.

As one athlete said at the Ironman Coeur d’Alene, “It is part of the deal with an Ironman swim when the numbers are so high. You just get beat up on in the swim.”

While it is impossible to remove the brunt physicality of the sport, especially among those who are highly competitive or among those who just cannot swim straight, coaches, race directors and officials can go a long way to clean up the sport.

Coaches can refrain from encouraging their athletes to partake in aggressive actions (especially ziplining, elbowing and veering another competitor off-course or into a turn buoy) or to retaliate.

Race directors can specifically warn athletes in the registration documents, race package documentation and in pre-race briefings that unsportsmanlike conduct of any sort – inadvertent or intentional – will lead to immediate disqualification.

Officials can learn how to spot unsportsmanlike behavior – both inadvertent and intentional – and call warnings or give disqualifications to the athletes. Their presence on the course can fulfill dual roles: as safety officers and a referees if they are properly educated and mentored.

Gradually, when athletes understand that unsportsmanlike conduct is not tolerated, their mindset will shift from “everyone-does-it” to “anyone-who-does-it-is-disqualified”. And this mindset change and policing of the race courses will go a long way to clean up the physicality and make the sport a lot more enjoyable for many.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones