Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to make open water 10K races safer - Cold water and wetsuits!

Premise & Inference: Both hot water and 100-degree air temps plus a profoundly long swim were the most likely issues that led to Fran Crippen's death. He most likely drowned after going hyperthermic but may have survived if he had instantaneous access to a lifeguard or flotation device.

Note, Christine Jennings is the living example of what most likely happened since she and four others were rushed to the hospital for hydration and high core-temp treatment. (Also consider that the winner Thomas Lurz was highly critical of the same swimming conditions that Jennings suffered through.)

This obviously infers that hot water and hot air temps are a dangerous mix for an open water event. The body cannot cool itself via evaporative cooling nor can the body hydrate itself fast enough when it is in trouble. (Diana Nyad, is another case in point when she required 4-liters of IV fluid to recover form a 89-degree water swim.) Thus, the potential for overheating, unconsciousness, and even death is a de facto high risk and this must be confronted aggressively.

Conclusion: All races should be held in water that is on the cool side - 65-degree temps or less. That athletes MUST have an instantaneous access to flotation aids (read "flotation aids" as a mandatory wetsuits), so as to assist any athlete in staying above the water if they are fighting unconsciousness and/or exhaustion. Also include GPS timing chips for location assistance and a trained medical staff on site for faster treatment.

Granted, this would eliminate swim races under golden, tropical, suns but since FINA and event organizers are not capable of keeping an eye on all the athletes, it is my belief that stringent solutions like these are more workable than not.


Glenn said...

But what about the "purists" Tony? What you're suggesting is blasphemy to real swimmers. A GPS chip? Are you crazy? Floatation? It's just lunacy.

Seriously, your argument is simply too logical. Even though in just about every other "extreme" sport there are requirements for safety, wether it be helmets, or the proper medical personnel standing by, and like you said, since FINA has shown they're incapable of providing the latter... there is really no choice but for the athletes to outfit themselves and damn FINA and the purists.

Open water swimming has officially become an "extreme" sport because of Fran and his courage. Once someone is at risk of losing their life because of either the incredible challenge of distance, conditions, etc., or simply by being left to climb Mt. Everest with no guide... it's become something completely different than what we thought it was. Because of this, you're correct in providing ideas of changes that need to take place.

Tony Austin said...

Thank you Glenn, I am very flattered.

I am just hoping someone from FINA comes along and steals these ideas.


LC said...

I'm one of those purist and I think wetsuits should be optional and in another division.

I have swam in 40 degree seawater and 48 fresh but don't wear a wetsuit. I have done the length of Tahoe both ways, Loch Lomond and the English Channel - no wetsuit.

I also know I'm uncomfortable in hot water and can get dizzy in the Y pool at 84 degrees. I'm very careful about hydration/cold water to counteract this.
I also am very careful in tropical waters, just as careful as I am in water under 50 degrees.

Being smart, acclimating and knowing both yourself and the conditions is critical to Open Water Swimming but I know folks who have worn a wetsuit and still been medium hypothermic because they don't do any acclimation.

At the same time, I have seen athletes become hyperthermic because the wetsuit is too warm.

Pushing safety and appropriate training and acclimation and a wetsuit if there is a reason. Which can be it just makes me feel safer it only part of it.

Knowing the danger signs, training, having rescue boats/lifeguards that are trained, safe event proceedures, etc are the key not just wetsuits.

There needs to be minimum standard of care for OW events.

Anonymous said...

Wetsuits are cumbersome and can retain too much heat. Not many elite swimmers will want to wear one. All that is needed is access to more lifeguards. Fina should consult LA county guards on how to run a race safely. I do strongly agree about the water temp, but I was thinking no higher than 72-73.

Bill Ireland said...

Your ideas terrify me. Literally every single one of my favorite swims would not be allowed to proceed--Hawaii too warm. New York water in June-August too warm. Having to wear a wetsuit even though I have no interest in doing so and never have. Ouch.

I can understand your reasoning and it would be safer. But it would really change the sport entirely.

Tony Austin said...

HAHAHA - I am talking about FINA events where swimmers are holding about 1-minute per 100 and generating lots of heat. Of course we "normal people" would get our Maui open water races, our Alcatraz crossings, and events in Cancun and such because apparently those promoters do a much better job with securing our safety.

Anonymous said...

I don't think excluding swimming in warm water is necessary although a cut-off point at the high end may be good - what IS necessary is having people to watch the swimmers and check that they are OK. Jennings's account is a prime example of all that was wrong with that race - there was nobody to save her or Fran when they were in trouble in the water.

Tony Austin said...

Yes, my suggestions are extreme but I figured the wetsuit idea would bypass FINA incompetence.

phonon56 said...

The tragic event was caused by over-confidence. I just finished a very small long distance race and saw a similar attitude. The lifeguards had so much confidence in my [less than elite] abilities that I did not see anyone for some of my miles. Therefore, the staff at the 10K race suffered from miscalculating that bad things can happen to top notch athletes. I'm not sure many new rules need to be implemented. Only the knowledge that elite athletes need to have a check system as well. People die. People drown. Bad things happen. This sad event has raised awareness and I do not think it will happen again at an event due to negligence of watching over the participants.