Weekend Triathlon Swim Fatality – Endurance Athletes Take Note

Yesterday, a 43-year-old woman died during the swim portion of a triathlon up in Wisconsin. While the incident is still under investigation, there’s a lot of evidence indicating that triathlons can cause excess stress on athletes’ hearts which may lead to life threatening consequences.

What I found to be rather significant, though, was this part of the report:

Earlier this summer, two deaths occurred during triathlons in the state. In June, Julie Silletti died while participating in the Elkhart Lake triathlon. Silletti, 54, made it to the point where she could stand up in the 400-yard swim course when she collapsed. The following month, Daniel J. Murray, 33, died during the Pewaukee triathlon a few minutes after the start of a quarter-mile swim.

We have three relatively young endurance athletes who all experienced fatal consequences during the swim course. One of them wasn’t even in the water that long when he collapsed.

We’ve gone beyond this being an incident or a series – we now have an established pattern. I personally think it’s high time the endurance sports community recognizes this potential risk and addresses it during both training and events. In other words, we need to look more at how we’re preparing people to manage both open water swimming conditions as well as the high stress/anxiety scenarios inherent with triathlons.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

11 Comments

  1. Russ Klettke
    August 26, 2009

    I have participated in more than 45 triathlons (all international distance) since beginning this sport in 1987, including every Chicago tri since that year, and am a comfortable open-water swimmer. In fact, I haven’t worn a wetsuit since 1992 – until last Saturday, because the water temps have been so low this year (55 degrees!?!). What worries me is that a very quick shock of cold water can cause an asthmatic reaction in people, like me, who don’t consider themselves asthmatic. On my training swim last Saturday, all I could do was the breaststroke because putting my face in the water triggered a constriction in my throat – kinda scary. I hope the race organizers communicate this to participants, particularly those who are new to the sport.

  2. diver dave
    August 12, 2009

    I LOVE HOW TOUGH MANY OF THESE TRI ATHLEATES CLAIM TO BE AND BRAG HOW FAST THEY CAN GO BUT WHEN THEY HEAR HOW A FEW OF US SWIM YEAR ROUND THEY FREEK OUT. THEY SEEM TO BE THE SAMEONES THAT WEAR A FULL WETSUIT ALL SUMMER AND A FEW WEAR THEM IN MY HEALTH CLUBS 84 DEGREE POOL !!!! I ALSO NOTICED HOW THE OHIO STREET GANG STARTS SWIMMING IN MID TO LATE MAY EACH YEAR AND STOPS EARLY SEPTEMBER. THAT KINDA OF A SHORT OPEN WATER TRAINING WINDOW. THIS IS ALSO THE SAME TIME PERIOD 90 PERCENT OF THE RUNNERS WORK OUT EACH YEAR.

  3. Alicia
    August 11, 2009

    I have to second what alot of you have already said. I think many beginning triathletes just do not take the swim portion as seriously. Even for strong pool swimmers, getting into the open water with all those people, water churning, adrenaline pumping, mixed with cold water temp can get an athlete into trouble. I was one of these people at my first tri too, but that experience was enough to teach me I needed to get out there in the lake to train.

  4. diver dave
    August 10, 2009

    ? ? ? HOW MANY ATHLEATES HAVE YEARLY PHYSICALS LET ALONE A HEART SCAN TO SEE HOW MUCH DAMAGE FAST FOOD HAS DONE TO THEIR HEART ? ? ? WE TEND TO HEAR HOW HIGH SCHOOL KIDS DIE IN GYM CLASS FROM HEART PROBLEMS. A LOT OF WEEKEND ATHLEATES DO NOT SEEM TO WORK OUT WHEN THEY CAN FIND SOME FREE TIME HERE AND THERE AND SIGN UP FOR LONG DISTANCE RUNS AND TRI’S AND GIVE IT THEIR ALL WITHOUT PROPER CONDITIONING WHICH TENDS TO PUT A VERY HEAVY STRAIN ON THEIR BODY. I KNOW I COULD NOT RUN A FULL MARATHON LET ALONE A 1/2 BECAUSE I HATE RUNNING AND SO NEVER TRAIN FOR IT, SO I SAVE THE ENTRANCE FEE AND FORE GO THE FREE T-SHIRT THAT COMES WITH THE ENTRY FEE.

  5. diver dave
    August 10, 2009

    I SAID IT BEFORE AND I WILL SAY IT AGAIN….
    THE SWIM PORTION IS ALWAYS FIRST OR THERE WOULD BE MANY MORE DEATHS IN THIS SPORT.
    TOO MANY INVEST IN VERY EXPENSIVE BIKE AND FANCY RUNNING SHOES BUT FEW ARE WILLING TO TAKE SWIMMING LESSONS TO SMOOTH OUT THEIR STROKE AND THEN REALLY PRACTICE IN OPEN WATER. THEIR REPLY ALWAYS IS “I WILL SURVIVE THE SWIM AND MAKE UP THE LOST TIME IN THE RUN AND BIKE PORTION”.

  6. Laura
    August 10, 2009

    Steve–I think it’s great that you’ve brought this up. People in general (weekend athletes in particular) need to take open water more seriously and really prepare themselves. When I started open water in my early ’30s, it was quite an adjustment despite the fact that I was in great shape and a former competitive swimmer. In fact, my first time I had to cut short because I was hyperventilating. Both the water temp and lack of black line (or visibility at all) was quite disorienting.

    Sadly, it appears that these tragic events are the impetus to making people heed the suggstions for prior open water training.

  7. Chris Chaudruc
    August 10, 2009

    This is tragic news and hopefully a wake-up call to those casual competitors who can get caught up in the intensity of an event and push themselves way beyond what they have trained for.

    Rule #1 is to go out and enjoy yourself.
    I recently was in a mile swim up in Kenosha – I was in the Masters group instead of the slower ‘age group’ – a registration error on my part. These swimmers took off from the beach, left me in their wakes and didn’t look back. I was dead last. But I told myself “you’ll be in your car in 30 minutes going home – just enjoy this beautiful swim and this day” and I just relaxed – didn’t stress about my position or trying to push myself way over my training limit to try and catch up. I finished the swim and felt great about it. We need to give ourselves a break once in a while.

    Rule #2 is to prepare responsibly for what you intend to do. If you don’t prepare then how can you expect to perform on race day.

    Rule #3 feel free to wave for help or to drop out if you are not feeling 100%.

    I am sure there are many more “rules” but in the end it is very sad to hear about these athletes and I wish the best for their families.

  8. mike
    August 10, 2009

    who’s responsibility is it to ensure people manage their own heart rate? my friend died at a gym while lifting weights due to cardiovascular disease. was his heart the gym’s responsibility or perhaps the workout machine manufacturer or perhaps even the steel factory that produced the iron he was pumping?

    i don’t understand how heart disease is the responsibility of anyone other than the individual. if they died shoveling heavy, wet snow, we’d be listening to a news report reminding people not to shovel heavy snow if they have heart problems, not people questioning whether shoveling snow is too dangerous and we should have snow shoveling training. and “no prior heart issues” doesn’t mean they had a healthy cardiovascular system.

    people need to understand their bodies and the stresses they place them under. further, i find it interesting that all three of these cases involved sprints. were the athletes unprepared for the racing, period? i’m not making an assumption, i’m asking.

  9. srhernan
    August 10, 2009

    Hi. Thanks for the comment.

    Just to clarify, nowhere did I mention that the sport itself was to blame for these individuals’ fatalities. However, I do think it’s very significant that all three cases occurred during the swim portion.

    I’ve experienced this first hand. There was a fatality at the Escape From the Rock Triathlon I participated in last year involving a 63-year-old man with no prior heart issues. A longtime swimmer, he collapsed near the shore after suffering a cardiac arrest.

    So this issue isn’t that triathlons are bad and that people shouldn’t participate in them. The issue is that there needs to be more focus on managing the front end of triathlons – namely, the open water swim part. That’s one of the reason I started this blog in the first place.

    Bottom line, the endurance sports community does a great job at teaching people swim techniques and drills. But in my experience, it does a lousy job of instructing people on critical items such as how to manage your heart rate during heavy exertion in cold water.

  10. aj
    August 10, 2009

    “Earlier this summer, two deaths occurred during triathlons in the state. In June, Julie Silletti died while participating in the Elkhart Lake triathlon. Silletti, 54, made it to the point where she could stand up in the 400-yard swim course when she collapsed. The following month, Daniel J. Murray, 33, died during the Pewaukee triathlon a few minutes after the start of a quarter-mile swim.”

    I think this article has no bearing whatsoever on the dangers of endurance athletics. While it is tragic, can you honestly tell me that just because someone dies while BARELY starting the swim portion of a triathlon, that the sport itself is to blame? There is no prior health histories’ noted of these individuals. I am almost positiive there had to be underlying consequences that ultimately led to the deaths of these individuals and I would reserve judgment on the sport until all the facts are released.


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  1. […] year, I posted a piece on this site about some triathlon fatalities that took place during the swim. While there were certainly some strong opinions about whether or not event organizers could have […]

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