Making a Safer Triathlon Swim


As you may well know, the New York City Triathlon has endured more than its share of tragedy.  Just this past year, two athletes died during the swim portion of the race (you can read about them here). 

As part of their actions to make the race safer, recently the organizers of the race announced that going forward each athlete will be required to sign a waiver that they have swum at least a half-mile open water race during the preceeding 18 months.  The thought is that by having this prior experience in open water, swimmers will be safer.  People will be used to swimming in open water and no future deaths will happen.

If you believe that, I’ve got some pristine swamp-land I’d be happy to sell you.

In my opinion, asking athletes to sign a waiver that they have previously done an open water swim is nothing more than a lawyer-approved C.Y.A. maneuver.  A signature on a piece of paper does not a safe swim make.  But it does make the prospects of the race organizers drowning in a sea of lawsuits much more palatable.

So what would make a safer triathlon swim?

Frankly, there’s lots of things.  Smaller start waves.  Time trial starts.  More lifeguards.  An in-water start (especially for cold-water starts like the NYC Tri).  Arm floaties.  Fins.  Trolling motors attached to folks’ arses.  Newbie-only waves.

Let’s face it, the triathlon swim is well documented as the “hardest” part of the race.  More fatalities occur in this portion of the race than the other two.  While the proximate cause of these deaths is often difficult to determine, there are likely multiple causes, hence curing the ills will be difficult. 

Signing a waiver certainly isn’t going to fix the problem of athletes drowning in triathlon.


6 thoughts on “Making a Safer Triathlon Swim

  1. “Arm floaties. Fins. Trolling motors attached to folks’ arses.” Love it… Not only would this be safer, it would be a great sight to see!!! Arm-floaties that color coordinate with the swim cap for the wave starts…

    The Swim is by far the hardest part. My first tri coach told me “You can fake a run by walking; you can fake a bike (everyone has been on a bike before); but, you cannot fake a swim, you WILL drown.” It is the one discipline I focus most on during tri-training.

  2. It is a big whatever! Just another piece of paper we will sign without reading. Have ya ever seen the registration page for an Ironman? I have seen a couple but have yet to read one!!! I wouldn’t get into the race!

  3. I agree the waiver is really a joke. I think you brought of several options to improve safety – most that I would be all in favor of (save the floaties and trolling motors). If I recall the articles about the two that died, both were physically fit and had done triathlons before. Just wasn’t there day to do one. One or both of them may have died had they been on dry land. Just hard to know for sure.

  4. I vote for fins! I completely agree, the waiver idea is definitely a CYA. I can’t imagine anyone being presented with the waiver reading it and going “oh wait, I can’t do this race after all, I haven’t swum in open water”. Right. They are going to sign it just like every other waiver. Might as well put a clause in there that they promise not to swim over the top and anyone, knock their goggles off or kick them either. You know, while we are documenting things and all … 🙂

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