Death in the Water: 5 Ways To Make Your Triathlon Swim Safe.

By Tom Demerly for


Your chest is tight, your wetsuit is gagging you, you can’t breath, you’re sinking, you can’t see a lifeguard. You are drowning…

It’s your responsibility if your triathlon open water swims are terrifying- and dangerous, and that is good.

Since it is your responsibility, you can do something about it.

Following the death of U.S. Army Col. Gene Montague in the swim at the Chattanooga Ironman 70.3 triathlon on Sunday, May 22, 2016 here are five things to do now to prevent another potential swim accident:

  1. Yes- You Should Get a Medical Check. Even You 

In 2008 I had a stroke while running as a result of a common cardiac birth defect I never knew I had, a Patent Foramen Ovale or “PFO”. If I had the same stroke during an open water swim the likelihood is I would have drowned. Before that day I did hundreds of events without a single cardiac problem. One day, it just showed up out of the blue.

And it nearly killed me.

There are a number of pre-existing medical problems that may be minor if they present themselves on land, but could be deadly if they show up in an open water swim. Many of these are easy to detect with an EKG or other medical tests.

Take the responsibility to have these tests done yourself, because race organizers have not taken the responsibility to require them.

The harsh reality for triathletes is that, if one of these easily detectible conditions strikes during the swim, it is our own fault. We could have detected and prevented the accident prior to race day.


Cardiac fitness certificates from a physician are common in ultra-distance running races and some ultra-distance adventure races like the Marathon des Sables and the long course Raid Gauloises. But they are oddly absent from Ironman and triathlon, where the numbers of participants and the lack of preparation make them more relevant.

This is our responsibility, so go to the doctor and have a cardiac check-up and an overall physical to assess your risk to having a serious open water swim medical problem.

  1. Own It: Proactively Manage Thoughts, and Preparation.

Practice Mental Rehearsals and Visualization to Manage Fear. Take control of your pre-race thoughts before they take control of you.

Make a conscious decision to replace destructive fear with constructive mental preparation. Proactively eliminate fear using conscious thought.

If you do not have a purposeful approach to mental preparation for open water swimming then involuntary and subconscious fear will surface. Don’t let it. It is your decision.

Your cognitive brain has a given processing capacity. If you use all of your brain’s processing capacity for purposeful, constructive thought you won’t have any remaining cognitive capacity for fear. You won’t have time to be scared.

You’ll be too consciously occupied visualizing a positive outcome to have fear of a negative outcome affect your performance.


Four to eight weeks before your first race find a quiet place to sit without distractions for 15 minutes. Close your eyes and visualize what you think the transition area might look like on race day. Look for photos of the race venue on line to assist with this preparation.

Imagine yourself racking your bike in the transition area; chatting with other athletes, feeling the cool morning air before the sun rises. Think about pulling your wetsuit on, adjusting it into place. Go over the actions again and again in your head.

Focus on concentration- it isn’t easy to concentrate this purposefully. Visualize walking to the water’s edge, having your goggles with you, stretching your swim cap on and pushing in your earplugs. What will the race announcer be saying over the loudspeaker? What wave will you be in for the start? How many people will you be swimming with? Answer these questions in advance using the race website resources and information about last year’s race.

Occupy your brain purposefully and teach yourself to think calmly and in an orderly manner about controllable factors. Use all of your brain on things you can control and let the rest go.

  1. Practice Swimming In Open Water Before Race Day.

Seems obvious, frequently ignored.

Especially in inland fresh water lakes in the Midwest underwater visibility is poor. Add glare from a rising sun on the horizon and you are swimming blind in the open water in a group of people kicking you with no idea where you’re headed.

That’s scary if you aren’t accustomed to it. Get used to the open water swim environment gradually and in increments before race day.

To moderate your open water anxiety, practice swimming straight and parallel to the shore in shallow, open water prior to race day. This will teach you straighter swimming, sighting strategies and get you mentally acclimated to swimming in poor underwater and surface visibility.

Get used to mucky, sandy and weed-covered lake and ocean bottoms you never encounter in pools.


Ramp your pace up to the speed you’ll swim in a race. Bring a friend to swim with- never swim open water alone- and practice swimming close to each other with occasional bumps. This will get you ready for rough and tumble swim starts.

As your comfort and proficiency swimming parallel to shore increases then practice swimming toward a landmark into deep water with your swim buddy. Always use an area free of boat and watercraft traffic. Try to navigate straight out toward an object on the horizon like a water tower, tall tree or other visible, stationary landmark on the horizon, and then reverse your course back to shore. Keep it short and comfortable and repeat several times to improve your comfort, confidence and proficiency.

  1. Swim More Before Race Day. Way More.

Also Pretty obvious.

Except in competitive swim, surf and lifeguard circles swimming is the event people like the least and practice the least. Change that.

If you increase your swim volume before race day you will get slightly faster , slightly more fit but significantly more comfortable in the water.

This is a simple fix, but since swimming is less convenient than going for run or a bike ride and more people are afraid of it, it usually gets relegated to the thing we train for the least. Most people simply train enough to “get through” the swim. That makes an event less enjoyable and more frightening.


Too late you say? You’re big race is a month away and you’ve only been to the pool twice? They will have the same race again next year, and there is wisdom in picking your battles, taking time to competently prepare and coming back in a year.

  1. Get Comfortable With Your Wetsuit and Swim Gear Early. 

I’ve sold triathlon wetsuits since they were invented in the 1980’s. To this day people will buy a wetsuit on Thursday and try to race in it on Saturday.

Don’t do that.

Buy your wetsuit at least a month before race day. Do a dry-land try-on and make sure it fits precisely (read: tight) enough so no excess water enters the suit. Learn to pull the legs and torso up without tearing the outer surface of your suit with your fingernails. Practice getting the torso and arms pulled up so the suit is not restrictive.

New wetsuits usually feel uncomfortably tight and restrictive when you’re doing a dry land fitting. That’s normal.

Follow-up the dry land fitting with a pool and an open water practice swim in the wetsuit and race clothing you’ll use on race day.


Tip: Triathletes who say it is easier to swim in a sleeveless suit than a full sleeve suit usually didn’t have their full suit on correctly- that is why they had problems swimming in it. Full suits are faster, warmer, more buoyant and you travel farther per stroke making them more efficient. But you have to put them on correctly. If a a suit is not pulled up high enough in the upper torso and the arms aren’t pulled up high enough excess neoprene in the underarm will make swimming more difficult. It isn’t the suit- it’s a poor job of donning the suit.

Few triathletes go to an open water swim venue with their equipment and practice. This is a key error.

Put on your wetsuit, get it adjusted correctly, enter the water, get used to the suit in the water well before race day. Then do some shallow water, slow, controlled swimming to get used to the new sensations.

Take all your race day gear and do a test swim at low speed in waist-deep water. Take time to stop, stand up, adjust your wetsuit, your goggles, and your earplugs. Get used to how all your equipment feels well before race day. Do this in a controlled, non-pressured situation.

If you practice these five proactive behaviors before race day your open water swim will be safer, you will be a more responsible, better-prepared athlete and you’ll have a better performance and enjoy your event more.

Take responsibility for your own performance.





Author Tom Demerly has raced endurance events on all 7 continents, written for numerous triathlon publications including the official USA Triathlon newsletter, Inside Triathlon and many others. He’s done Ironmans around the world Including the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii and the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup in Jordan. He is a former member of a U.S. Army Long Range Surveillance Team and a certified Advanced Open Water SCUBA Diver. Demerly also worked with athletes at Doug Stern’s Open Water Swim Camp in Curacao, Dutch Antilles for three years. Most importantly, Demerly loves the water.


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