Imagine that during a triathlon, a cyclist wrecked in the middle of the road, and everyone just stood around saying, “Poor guy. Dude must have had a heart attack. Or maybe he wasn’t all that good on a bike. Nothing we can do now.”
Sound ridiculous? Most people understand that just because a person knows how to ride a bike, that’s not a guarantee that s/he will never fall off of it, nor get seriously hurt, nor even die. Accidents happen. And when they do, people notice. And help.
With many a triathlon swim course, however, there is often a foregone conclusion that nothing can be done for accidents that occur in the water. Recently a race director remarked about distress cases in the swim, “It’s not like you can drive an ambulance up to the athlete.”
For the cycling portion, USA Triathlon has helmet requirements and other rules to minimize life-threatening injuries on the bike course. Many of those measures have come from experts in the field of cycling. Yet, too often missing from the swim course are experts from the field of aquatic safety, the people trained to notice, as well as to advise on other swim precautions.
Lifeguards discern the subtle changes in body position and behavior that indicate distress, or a more serious medical event in progress or imminent. In pre-incident radio chatter, water rescuers say things like “head-up breaststroker coming your way, lifeguard six” and “pink cap on her back trying to unzip her wetsuit” and “yellow cap, number 1277, holding a kayak for the second time”, just a few of the precursors to and signs of swimming distress that lifeguards not only notice, but monitor closely to anticipate where the need to respond quickly may arise.
As early as childhood, we learn that no one is ever drown-proof. (Until recently, drowning was defined as any death that occurs within 24 hours of a submersion event.) We are told to swim near a lifeguard, and that water safety requires different “layers” of protection. Like riding a bike, just knowing how to swim is not a guarantee against in-water distress. Even the most qualified swimmers, taking every precaution, are not exempt. Yet, increasingly pervading triathlon culture is the disturbing concept that triathletes are tough, and shouldn’t NEED a lifeguard.
Yet unlike the land under a bike path, water is a different element. It is big. It can be quiet or deafening. It resists, or rushes. It can lift up, or swallow up. It hides. A swim path isn’t lined with spectators. Even if it were, it’s not likely that any one of those cheering fans would detect something wrong, or be able to render the kind of aid that may be necessary. Constant skilled supervision is required to spot the often vague and hazy signs of concern. And a specific competence is demanded for rescue in that environment.
Insist on certified lifeguards at triathlons and open-water swim events.
Because it’s not like riding a bike.