Whole Living Daily

NYC Triathlon Tragedy: Is Open-Water Swimming Safe?

Posted by

When I finished the New York City triathlon this past Sunday, I was so excited to share with you the excitement, the challenges, and my big accomplishment, a personal best! Before I could start writing, though, I learned that two of my fellow competitors would never get that chance: A 64-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman were pulled from the Hudson River during the swim, unresponsive, and later died at New York City hospitals.

Photo credit: Teammate Sarah's husband Dan, who jointed us at the 6 a.m. swim start.

The idea that two participants died in one event has, of course, raised questions about the safety of triathlons in general, and of this particular course on this particular day -- a morning accompanied by rain, wind, choppy waters, and a puddle-filled bike course. But I hate to see the news media being alarmist about the “deadly” sport of triathlons, and I'm saddened by the tone that several of the articles have taken.

What Went Wrong?
Take the New York Times, for example, which published an article Monday morning about the first death -- that of relay participant Michael Kudryk.

One of the 53 rescue kayakers in the Hudson on Sunday morning.

After relaying the few known facts about what happened -- Kudryk was pulled from waters that were patrolled by 53 kayakers, 32 lifeguards, 4 police boats, 3 fire department boats, 2 jet skis and 2 launch boats -- the Times interviewed a pro triathlete who crashed on the bike course after hitting a puddle-covered pothole. This triathlete, the article said, "thought that the triathlon’s increase in popularity had attracted a wider range of athletes to the sport."

"“It’s now become a common trend is for people to use triathlon as a way to lose weight,” she told the Times. “But you go to races and look around, and you start to ask yourself, ‘Is this race too much for that person?’”

I know this triathlete -- and these writers and editors -- are concerned for participants' safety. But I can't help but notice a disconnect here. No, we don't know much about Michael Kudryk, and these quotes certainly don't say that he specifically was out of shape or doing this to lose weight. But isn't it somewhat implied, or at least suggested, by the structure of this article?

Swimming the .9-mile journey toward our transition area.

What we do know about Kudryk is that he was a relay participant who chose to take on the swim portion of the event -- which I'd hope means that swimming was something he considered a strength. As details emerged this week, we also found out that, according to the Daily Mail, he was a skier and marathoner in good shape for his age.

The second athlete who died, mom of three Amy Martich, had been a competitive swimmer and was in the best shape of her life, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and her death seemed to come "just so out of the blue."

Learning from the Facts
It will take some time before doctors can say what exactly caused these fatal heart attacks in the Hudson on Sunday morning. I was in the water, and yes, it was choppy. But kayakers were always within a few yards of me. There was confusion and excitement on the starting barge beforehand, but a new type of start instituted this year cut down on congestion and jostling in the water.

And while it's true that anyone can sign up for this triathlon -- without any swim certification or a doctor's permission -- the organizers do their best to prepare participants, with mandatory pre-race briefings, a detailed Athlete's Guide, and plenty of communication before the big day.

I've done several triathlons, and for me, this was the safest-feeling swim yet. So I take issue with Manhattan borough president calling the race "a game of Russian Roulette." And -- as someone who was a beginner to the sport myself just two years ago -- I take issue with people who use tragedies like this to suggest that maybe triathlons aren't worth the dangers they pose.

Doing a Triathlon? Know the Risks
If you're new to the sport of triathlons, of course it's important to understand the risks you're facing. You should be well practiced in all three events, and spend some time in an open-water situation to prepare yourself for the swim. You should talk to your doctor if you have any reason to suspect you might not be healthy enough to compete. And you should know how and when to get help, if any of the events get to difficult for you.

It's also important to understand that any activity, even just walking outside, contains some amount of risk. (Sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl explained on WNYC this week explained how, statistically, you're more in danger just getting to the triathlon than you are competing in the event itself.) Exercise can increase your exposure to some risks, such as complications from undiagnosed heart defects or other health problems. But overwhelmingly, it reduces your risk for so many other long-term health problems.

I'd hate to see someone jump into the water for their first triathlon unprepared. But I'd also hate to see someone who's considering the sport change their mind because it seems too scary. Instead, know the risks: A 2010 study found that triathlons are slightly more dangerous than, say, marathons, and that most deaths do occur during the swim than during any other event. But the number of deaths in this study were still very small compared to the hundreds of thousands of surviving participants. (You can read about the study, and an interview with the author, on Scientific American's blog.)

What Do You Think?
My thoughts and prayers are with these athletes' families, and I hope that we can ultimately learn something from their deaths -- whether race directors are able to make their events even safer, or whether they just serve as reminders that life is short and unpredictable, and that no matter what, there will always be risks.

Has the news this week changed your opinion of triathlons? Have you ever competed in one and felt unsafe during the swim? And what would you think about races requiring some type of doctor's note or certification in order to participate, as some people have proposed?

Amanda MacMillan is a freelance writer, currently blogging at LeanGreenBride.com. She is looking forward to her first sprint tri next month with Team Whole Living, the Danskin Women's Triathlon in Sandy Hook, N.J. Her triathlon training blog runs weekly on Whole Living Daily.

Related Posts:

Comments (8)

  • Thanks for this thoughtful, helpful blog. We all assume risks every day--I go through spates of surfing injuries, even though I'm experienced and stay in shape. It is good to be aware of changing conditions, monitor ourselves,stay prepared, and never be afraid to say, 'You know what? not today.' As Hawaii lifeguards say, "When in doubt, don't go out."

  • Very well written. I competed in the event as well and yes, I found the swim to be extremely choppy vs what I had expected. I was a bit unsure at first, but then settled into a groove and got it done. Like you, I knew help was nearby so didn't panic. I've become a bit obsessed with the coverage of these tragedies and agree that the media is not fairly portraying the sport. There is no way to tell how your body will react to ANY situation. All we can do is prepare ourselves physically as best possible, enjoy the race, and hope for the best.

  • I began training for my first triathlon shortly after I started chemotherapy four years ago. The woman next to me in treatment looked better than the rest of the patients and I asked her for her secret. She told me about her triathlon team. Since then I've become a Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer and completed more than 20 triathlons and marathons. I am the Cancer Fitness Coach at Can Do Fitness in Princeton.
    I prescribe triathlon training to patients and survivors as a health benefit and will continue to do so. Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death, not triathlon.
    I was a participant in the NYC Triathlon and look forward to participating again next year with the team from Cancer Athletics. Come and train with us. It's healthy.
    David Dorfman
    Triathlon Coach, Cancer Athletics

  • [...] and triathlon training. So when my fiance insisted that we take some time off after I finished New York City triathlon a few weeks ago, I couldn't really [...]

  • [...] swim faster and more efficiently. They make you extremely buoyant, so it's great for anyone who's worried about sinking or who has trouble keeping their body horizontal in the [...]

  • Hi all, You may have done an outstanding occupation. Let me surely bing them as well as personally highly recommend to help my local freinds. I think will have them benefited from this great site.

  • Not all companies are made equal, plus some are a lot more expensive compared
    to others. Supported hardware devices: UNIX supports less
    hardware devices than Windows. Sony Ericsson Satio operated on Symbian OS series 60 with 5th edition, is
    a camera focused phone and it also supplies same size touchscreen display but the
    screen resolution is 640 x 360 Pixels here and also has accelerometer sensor for auto-rotate but here you will not find
    QWERTY keyboard.

    It's very straightforward to find out any matter on net as compared
    to books, as I found this article at this site.

    My web blog - website

  • Woah! I'm really digging the template/theme of this site.

    It's simple, yet effective. A lot of times it's hard to get that "perfect balance" between superb usability
    and visual appeal. I must say you have done a great job with
    this. Additionally, the blog loads super fast for me on Safari.
    Excellent Blog!

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.