😊 contemplative Louisville, CO

Listens: Cocomotion (album) El Coco

Death in Triathlon

is always news, because it is news, and because it happens so infrequently. Last weekend saw at least two deaths in races, the most prominent was the death of 75-year-old Jim Hix in the USA Nationals. Jim had to be rescued from the swim and subsequently pronounced dead. At the time of writing, no cause of death has been established.

The other death I was able to find was that of Dr Mark Wladecki during a triathlon in Gibsonburg Ohio at the White Star 5K and Multisport Festival. According to the press write-up, 60-year-old Wladecki "failed to stop at a stop sign" during the bike section, and was hit and killed.

For those of us that are triathletes, and cyclists, death reports are a stark reminder of the risks we take. Recently while a volunteer Captain, running VIP Services for the Boulder Ironman 70.3, I got to witness, first hand, my first death in sport.

At the time, my first reaction was what was going on, as a saw the rescue team on jet ski's converging fast at a pint not far from the finish of the swim. I was almost shocked to see how they cut through the swimmers. It was quickly obvious this was indeed a rescue, and this excused the speed and danger the other competitors were put in.

I was about to take photo's when I realized that it wasn't probably the best idea, and two, that the course was still shut-off and the ambulance would have to get through. I quickly asked a couple of my volunteers to come with me, and we opened up barricades, moved people etc. All thoughts of posting on social media long gone.

The death of Scott Michaelis of Wichita, Kansas was reported in the Daily Camera, to which I'm a subscriber,  and once identified publicly a subsequent articles went up, which also noted, without comment, that this was the third death at an Ironman Boulder event. The worst of these was the lede for the Associated Press report on the death, as included in the Star Tribune, it screamed:

Third time in four years a competitor dies at Boulder Ironman triathlon

The implication of course was that there was something wrong at the race.

Over on twitter I had an interaction with Denver Post reporter Matt Sebastian, who also tweeted links to the reports on the three deaths. My point being that while I understand he was "simply" reporting the three deaths, by doing so without context he was suggesting/implying something more.

What all these unfortunate death reports fail to mention is the number of people who've turned their lives and health around while training for triathlon, Ironman and other lifestyle and aspirational sports. 

Someone dies every 12-seconds in the USA. Some 7,453 each day. It's therefore not surprising that a few of them die in a triathlon. Dan Empfield, aka Slowman, has put some thought and data into his take on this. Estimates range between 81,000 and 144,000 as the number of triathlon competitors each year.

While it's important to hold race organizers to the highest possible safety standard, we cannot either imply, assert, or blame through association every triathlon death on them. Mostly, many of the people dying would have died anyway, some sooner, some later.

As a heart attack survivor, whose life was transformed by taking up triathlon in 1999, who lost over 80lbs, I guess without triathlon, I'd have fallen into the sooner category. As I said to Matt on twitter 

Ironman is hard, people do it because it's hard. Unfortunately from  time to time it turns out to be much harder than they imagined. People  also make mistakes of judgment.


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