While lifeguarding an open-water practice swim for about 200 people, I noticed two swimmers together, both women with their heads raised out of the water. Since this is both a sign of and precursor to fatigue which can lead to swimming distress, I chose to warn them about crossing the upcoming canal, a 200-yard stretch of water where they would find no place to rest if they opted to proceed.
I try to keep my comments light. I don’t want to worry or panic anyone. Open-water swimming is mostly a mental game, and the darkness of the water can quickly take you to dark spaces in your mind. A swim course isn’t lined with spectators, so lifeguards often find themselves coaches and cheerleaders, as well as keen watchers and early warners. In the more relaxed practice environment, we are also educators. By engaging swimmers, however briefly, we can (and often do) share tips for a successful swim.
While many welcome the free education, our lifeguard perspective on swimming and safety is not always welcome. When I asked, “How are we doing, ladies?” and began to address their head-up body position, one of them shot back, “We’re FINE! I’m her COACH!”
This defensive and angry response is common. In fact, lifeguard training includes ways to handle the about-to-be rescued, many of whom refuse help, and vehemently. People find it embarrassing to be assisted or advised, especially in front of an audience. But lifeguards mean it when we say that we’re just doing our job. And that is to warn, and then wait, and sometimes warn again. To recognize and respond, but never reprimand. To signal, support, and swim you back to safety. Because we understand that conditions and people can change without warning. The combination of tired, adventurous, a stiff wind, or strong current can alter the expected outcome of anyone’s swim.
So here’s the rub, Coach. To a lifeguard watching everyone, you are a cap in the water, no more special or different or exempt from supervision and direction than any other swimmer. And of the two of you, the one more likely to die in a triathlon or open-water swim is not that novice athlete you’re training. It’s YOU.
Emerging research from New Jersey-based Triton Water Rescue suggests that triathletes may be categorized as under-confident, confident, and over-confident. Under-confident swimmers may be relieved to know that they are least likely to die in competition. Much of their behavior is consistent with obvious signs of distress, such as rolling over on the back or frequently switching stroke. Under-confident swimmers demonstrate poor technique, such as a fast but inefficient kick or arm action, or the head raised out of the water for long periods of time, all of which can lead to early fatigue, and ultimately panic.
Under-confident swimmers are the subjects of lifeguard radio chatter. “Lifeguard six, be advised of a female swimmer, full wetsuit, green cap, number 629, keeps rolling over on her back.” But while they garner a lot of attention, they are also self-monitors, and more apt to abandon a swim on their own. If they don’t, the other likely scenario is that they will be pulled out by water rescue crews—not because they are in grave danger, but because the constant supervision of a few compromises overall water safety for others.
Confident swimmers are just that, in the water and in life. They know where they stand, and they’re okay with it. Many have strong swimming and self-rescue skills, and enough experiences in open water to make them discerning of the changing conditions of nature and/or their own bodies. They have what we call a healthy fear and respect of water. Confident swimmers value water rescue teams, because they recognize the inherent dangers of open-water swimming, and because they know that on any day, anyone, including they themselves, could need help. Confident swimmers are most likely to say, “It’s not a swimming day,” and even abandon a race if conditions seem treacherous.
Over-confident swimmers may be surprised to learn that they are in the highest risk group. They are their own trainers, motivators, protectors. They count on their intense mental and physical preparation, incredible strength and endurance, and sheer will and determination, all legitimately earned and a credit to themselves, to get them though any difficulty. Most likely to believe that nothing bad can or will ever happen to them, changing conditions are merely a challenge, another opportunity to master the next level and reaffirm their belief that they are not mere creatures in a larger world. They expect to rise above nature.
The crack, though, in the neoprene armor is that many over-confident athletes don’t LISTEN, to others or to themselves. With so many personal and professional accomplishments, what more can they learn from a lifeguard? Of the 31 recorded triathlon swim deaths that occurred in the US between 2003 and 2011, the majority were of accomplished experienced multi-medal-earners. One theory is that they all had unknown pre-existing medical conditions or suffered “sudden cardiac arrest”, but water safety experts aren’t convinced. Cardiac death is the end of a life-threatening health problem. It’s rarely the beginning. Something happens long before the heart stops to indicate the body is in distress. Usually, it’s a feeling.
After all the intense training, a mere “feeling”, however bad, that occurs in the middle of a swim, when it’s inconvenient to stop and unnerving to address, is easily brushed aside as stress, excitement, wetsuit constriction, water temperature, or any number of things an over-confident athlete would first (or rather) believe. The idea that it could be indigestion, heat exhaustion, a panic attack, heart attack, or anything representing human frailty is quickly dismissed. Not wanting to reveal weakness, these athletes ignore or rationalize that feeling, and go stroking along, suffering alone, until they eventually expire.
While more medical and mental health research is conducted, I suspect that in that crowded field of swimmers, over-confident athletes resist messages that come from their own minds and bodies, just like they resist those that come from lifeguards. They may say, “I appreciate what you guys do” (read, for other people, because I’ll never need you), without any idea that we’re there for THEM, too, and perhaps most especially.