By Tom Demerly.
The concerns most people have
about doing triathlons center on swimming in open water in close
proximity to other swimmers. With a number of tragic swim fatalities
this season and a few races affected by swim conditions it’s
a good time to revisit the topics of open water swimming, safety,
individual experience and responsibility.
Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch wrote what
I thought was the best article on the recent swim accidents
I recommend you read Dan’s article as well as all the
great material on his website.
It may be the growth of our sport or a twist
of chance and most likely a combination of these along with
other factors that has brought this topic to our consciousness.
It also may be common sense.
Fear of the water is normal and healthy. The degree
of fear runs the continuum from healthy respect to irrational
paranoia with infinite stops in between depending on the person
and the circumstance. Because we aren’t optimally adapted
to survive physically in the aquatic environment some
fear of the water is endemic to our species. One may imagine
that fish have a similar response when forced upon land. They
flop about in what appears to be a panic. They aren’t
built to live on land so they don’t like it. Once they
are back in the water they calm down quickly. Relative to humans
most fish aren’t very smart and don’t have the mental
capacity to choose their response to stimulus. It is interesting
that large marine mammals with a greater mental capacity do
have the ability to spend some time out of the water with a
more “learned” and calmer response, like our learned
response in the water. Some marine mammals beach themselves
accidentally for reasons we don’t understand. Perhaps
whales and dolphins view our forays into the ocean with equal
Developing the ability to manage our response
to open water and the attendant stimulus from being in open
water is how a person eventually copes with a foreign and dangerous
environment. In triathlons if a person can’t manage their
response cognitively then they can’t control their response:
There is a third option to the “fight or
flight” theory and it is “thought”. Thought
is a complex process and one not done well under duress- another
physical feature of our species.
Watching children and their parents interact with
the water is often an interesting demonstration of this. Children
who have made a cognitive decision they need to enter the water
either from parental cajoling, peer pressure or some internal
value often demonstrate this. They stand on the side of the
pool or lake for quite a while working up the courage to get
in. They have to think about it. Good for them. That’s
a smart approach. They are cognitively making a decision about
how to respond. If you throw the kid in the water before that
process is complete they freak out. If you let them finish their
process they are fine.
At a big triathlon with 2500 people there is a
wide range of experience levels from elite to first timer. There
is also the same range of responses from cognitive and chosen
to largely unpredictable for the first timer. Here’s the
thing: In the absence of an athlete being able to cognitively
decide how they respond to the water conditions someone
else will have to decide for them. This is paramount to existing
in a society and a race is a society of athletes, at least for
the duration of the event. If a person can’t make decisions
on their own within the functioning framework of the society
then someone better equipped has to make the decisions for them,
usually defaulting to the lowest common denominator. Of 2500
athletes going into the water if one may panic and drown then
no member of the society should enter the water. The swim is
cancelled. This isn’t Rome and we aren’t gladiators
competing to the death.
The Roman analogy is a good one for another reason.
Somehow the Romans convinced themselves (or failed to un-convince
themselves) it was acceptable entertainment to watch people
kill each other for sport. We still do that, but with electronic
surrogates in video games. Few Romans made an individual, cognitive
decision that it was repulsive. Most simply went along with
the show. That “mob” or peer influence pervades
a triathlon swim start. If conditions are sketchy at the start
of the swim the default behavior among athletes is to look at
what others are doing. The mindset seems to be, “If everyone
is going into the water it must be safe.” The first thought
that came to mind when I wanted to write about this was the
lemming, the small rodent purported to jump off cliffs en
masse in an odd and fatal twist of collective behavior.
I went to wikipedia.com and found an eerily familiar characterization
of the lemming’s behavior:
“Lemmings can and do swim and may choose
to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. On occasion,
and particularly in the case of the Norway
lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach
a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge
to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming,
sometimes to exhaustion and death”
It sounds like athletes at a triathlon swim start.
The difference between triathletes and lemmings is that triathletes
have the ability to think and make decisions at a higher level.
Not all triathletes do this, but they have the capability. Lemmings
I had an idea relevant to this societal discussion
of triathlon behavior combined with swim safety. I proposed
that our sport has grown so much we need to have some type of
open water swimmer class that a person attended before they
were eligible to do a triathlon. The class would conduct a basic
swim test to be sure you could swim and float, enter and exit
the water calmly and hold your breath underwater without panic.
Then you’d move to the classroom for a little slideshow
on the ocean environment including common sense safety rules
for open water swimming, information about boat traffic, the
marine environment, currents, weather, waves and tides. It would
wrap up with the usual admonition that you go to your doctor
for a heart check up before you hop in the water for your first
triathlon. You’d get a little “Open Water Certified”
card with your name on it and show it at the registration desk
of your next triathlon. I proposed my idea on the Slowtwitch
forum where it met with mixed response. Some people thought
it was a great idea; some people were opposed to adding what
they perceived as “bureaucracy” to the sport. I
argued that the (admittedly more complex) sport of SCUBA diving
benefited from a formal curriculum and certification for participants.
At its basis this idea is really not that good. Triathlon is
an individual sport with independence and self-sufficiency at
its core. Enforcing some administrative compliance across the
spectrum of athletes diminishes this élan associated
with the individual chutzpah of the triathlete.
Another facet of this topic is that swim deaths aren’t
spontaneously caused by panic. Panic itself may exacerbate other
conditions such as heart disease or contribute to another problem
like inhaling volumes of water. Athletes sadly perish at events
like marathons due to heart disease, congenital defects and
heat injuries. It isn’t swimming that kills an athlete
in a hot marathon. This is also a controllable function of a
cognitive deduction: Can an athlete’s body physically
handle the stress? Is an athlete at risk for a heart attack?
Is an athlete’s heart healthy? Is an athlete adequately
prepared to participate in an event with extremes of weather?
The responsible athlete (with decent health insurance) makes
the cognitive decision about their fitness before they start
an event. They have been examined and received a clean bill
of health for aerobic exercise.
In researching this editorial I found a number
of resources that assist people in their responsible, cognitive
transition to being comfortable in the water and aware of the
inherent risks. One of the most interesting was A.T.S.S.I.,
the Aquatic Therapy/Specialized Swim Instruction Clinic. ATSSI
teaches people of all ages to be comfortable in the water. They
do so with a number of “softish” techniques that
gradually support and guide a person’s introduction to
the water. They teach movement in the water and a peaceful relaxed
approach to being in the water. They even feature an aquatic
version of Tai Chi known as “Ai Chi”, a gentle exercise
regimen performed in the water. The ATSSI folks take a kind
and gradual approach to helping a person make the cognitive
realization and decision that they can be safe in the water.
It is done gradually and respectfully: Respectful of both the
water and of the person’s fear.
Another approach is taken by a group of strapping
young lads I’m rather fond of called the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Since a big part of the SEALs job is done in and around the
water they have to be comfortable in the water in all conditions
including night time, rough seas, and in disgusting water conditions
like sewer inlets. The SEAL approach to being comfortable in
the water is the opposite of the ATSSI approach. SEAL candidates
have to make the cognitive decision that they are comfortable
in the water before they are subjected to a brutal routine of
submerged harassment where instructors steal their swim masks
under water, turn off the air to their SCUBA tanks, tangle their
regulator hoses and flip them over and over underwater to disorient
them simulating a “surf hit” when making a beach
landing. Then the candidates are subjected to “drownproofing”,
a regimen where their hands are tied behind their backs and
they are forced to bob in a pool for 5 minutes, float for 5
minutes, swim 100 meters (hands still tied) bob 2 more minutes
before performing some underwater forward and back flips and
then retrieve an item fro the bottom of the pool and return
to the surface to bob five more minutes. When I asked a SEAL
Team member if he thought being comfortable in the water was
a cognitive decision he told me, “I don’t know man,
you either are or you aren’t. Some guys think they are
and get washed out early on. Other guys are like fish. I don’t
know what makes them different.”
The basis of our relationship with the water as
sportsmen needs to always be rooted in respect. No one, regardless
of competence, is immune from the dangers posed by the open
water. The greatest example of this may be Eddie Aikau. Aikau
was a native Hawaiian born on Maui. He grew up to become the
consummate waterman, a title bestowed on persons who
are skilled at all aspects of existence in the maritime environment.
Aikau was a champion surfer and decorated lifeguard. He raced
outrigger canoes and swam circumnavigations of Hawaiian islands.
Aikau was lost at sea during an outrigger canoe expedition when
one of the canoes began to sink. In an attempt to get help for
his fellow paddlers he struck out across the open ocean for
over 12 miles paddling a surfboard. This was not a stretch for
such an accomplished waterman. Aikau disappeared with no trace
despite a massive sea and air search. Eddie Aikau was obviously
secure in the water and had made a cognitive decision that he
could swim, surf and paddle there but he still perished.
The moral to the Eddie Aikau story is that the
marine environment is inherently unforgiving. Decisions about
fitness and safety in the water need to be made preemptively
and even then may prove wrong. Decisions made need to include
a healthy amount of respect and a generous safety margin. The
decision to enter the water needs to be “owned”
and made by each individual, not through some “certification”
process or by a race director. If there are 2500 athletes on
the beach then there are 2500 decisions to be made. The trouble
is not all 2500 people in that example understand this so someone
has to make a decision for them, on their behalf. In that case
the only decision can be one of safety.
So it’s simple: Go to the doctor and get
examined. Make a decision that you are equipped to handle the
stimulus of the aquatic environment with constructive cognitive
decision making. Understand that you are responsible for the
decision. If you are having difficulty or think you will have
difficulty making a responsible decision then get help from
a resource like ATSSI.
It is that simple. And never forget: The water
is an inherently unforgiving environment.