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Westport Triathlete's Death Last Year Helps Spur Safety Ideas

Swimming safety has become an issue in triathlons, and many of them are taking measures to reduce the risk for athletes.
Swimming safety has become an issue in triathlons, and many of them are taking measures to reduce the risk for athletes. Photo Credit: Tom Renner

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – The death of a triathlete a year ago while competing in Westport raised safety concerns, and officials in many races have made changes to reduce the risk for triathletes.

Robert Hartline, 62, of Wallingford died after suffering a heart arrhythmia during the opening leg of last year’s race at Sherwood Island. USA Triathlon released a report earlier this year that said 45 triathlon deaths occurred in sanctioned events from 2003 to 2011, and 31 of them occurred from cardiac failure during the swim. Two people died in the New York City triathlon in 2011, and another died at last year’s New York Ironman.

“Swim safety has become our highest priority,” said Norwalk’s Eric Opdyke, race director for the nationwide, 13-race Revolution3 triathlon series. “We want to reduce the fear that many beginner triathletes have with swimming in the open water with a lot of other athletes at the same time.”

Opdyke’s group has been in the vanguard for advancing triathlon water safety. In April, Rev3 unveiled a plan that included prioritizing recruitment of open water professionals, pre-event heart screening and increasing its training for staff. Rev3 also has one lifeguard per 35 athletes, while the USA Triathlon standard is one per 50 athletes. The World Triathlon Corp., owners of the Ironman races, also announced changes in May to increase safety during the swim phase of its races.

One of the keys, Opdyke said, is to educate the triathletes. He said they need a proper warm-up, experience swimming in open water and to be used to a wetsuit. Athletes can always choose to start on the side or toward the back of the wave to minimize contact with other swimmers.

“Many events don’t allow for a proper swim warm-up, and when an athlete goes from resting to redlining, it puts a lot of stress on the heart and anxiety kicks in,” Opdyke said. “We encourage swim warm-up right up to the start of the competitor’s swim wave, which we believe better prepares them for the high-energy start of the race.”

The Stamford KIC It Triathlon, which takes place June 30, adopted a new measure this year that requires athletes to swim for 10 minutes as part of their pre-race routine to warm up and get acclimated to the water.

Conditions play a huge part in water safety, and Opdyke’s group has already witnessed two extremes this year. At a race in Knoxville in May, the air temperature was in the 50s. At a race at Lake Quassy earlier this month, temperatures soared into the 90s.

“We are forced to deal with any type of condition, whether it’s hot or cold and it’s our job to adapt the same way athletes need to adapt,'' he said.

Opdyke said his idea to have physicians pre-screen athletes at Rev3 races has been harder to implement than he realized. “There’s a major liability issue,’’ he said. “They don’t want to put somebody out there and then they go out and have an issue.”

Hartline’s death at Westport last year occurred on a cool, cloudy day and the water temperature was in the high 50s. Swimmers also went against the current.

“The only thing that could’ve been done differently was go with the current instead of against it,’’ said Opdyke, who competed in the race. “I did not think the conditions were too difficult. I wouldn’t have canceled the swim. Sometimes you just don’t know what the right answer is.”

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