Preventing Drowning during Triathlons – are we doing enough?

Yesterday was a sad day for the sport of triathlon. Collin Campbell, a 27-year-old triathlete from Woodlands, Texas, died of an apparently drowning during the swimming event of Onalaska Half Distance Triathlon in Lake Livingston near Houston. According to witnesses, he had crossed half-way point of the 1.2 miles swim leg of the race before going under. He was a well-trained and strong swimmer with no prior health condition. What could have caused this drowning death? Does not look like age, ill preparation for the swim or prior health conditions.

Not long time ago, in April 2016, 25-year-old Taurean Blake drowned in Calcasieu River during a triathlon at Sam Houston Jones Park, Louisiana, and later died in the hospital. He had just started the swim and had hardly gone 75 to 100 yards.   What could have caused this drowning death? Does not look like age or fatigue.

A recently published research by the Duke University researchers indicated that majority of the case they studied were due to some cardiac abnormalities. Some of these abnormalities are not evident under normal circumstance, but may get accentuated by cold water. Should the organizers mandate actual stress test under similar conditions before allowing the triathlete to get into the race? Maybe the self-certification of health condition by the athletes is not working, and the athletes (more so the ones in extreme sports) have too much of ego and sense of invincibility to admit.

Another aspect that potentially can be overlooked is the panic attacks in open water. Too many swimmers with the arms and legs kicking and splashing water can create a very chaotic and claustrophobic environment. My conversations with multiple triathletes (some of them have even participated in Ironman races) make me believe panic attack is not very uncommon, some know how to manage it and some do not. Triathlon is a sport of physical endurance as well as a sport of mental endurance. Should the organizers mandate panic management classes before allowing the triathletes to get into the race? Again, how many swimmers were actually stuck by panic in a real race will be hard to determine since most of them may not admit.

With the triathlon season winding down for the year, it’s time for triathlon organizers and governing bodies to introspect, time to get the medical professionals and technical innovators involved to carve the drowning, and time to bring awareness. Statistically, 1.5 drowning deaths out of 100,000 participants in USA Triathlon sanctioned events may look insignificant. But, for a nation that is thinking of sending a man to another planet, that number is too many.

– Meghna Sil

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