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It’s that Simple.
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 here. 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 ponder.

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: They freak.

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 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 don’t.

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.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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