Monday, March 4, 2013

Response To The Alcatraz Swim Death

I am sure many of you have heard about the death at the Escape To Alcatraz triathlon.  It was a 46 year old Austin man.  As a triathlon loving resident of Austin, this hit close to home.  As the organizer of the Austin Area Triathlon Meetup, I felt the need to say SOMETHING to my members.  I said this:

Hello All,

As I am sure many of you already know, there was a death during the swim portion of the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon.  The deceased was Ross Ehlinger, a local Austin attorney, husband and father of three.  This is a terrible tragedy for his family and friends.  My heart goes out to the family in this time of grief.

It is also a very sad day for the Austin triathlon community and for the triathlon world in general.  Some of you may have even known Mr. Ehlinger personally.  While it appears that his death was due to natural causes, the frequency of triathlon deaths, 26 in the last two years, is enough to leave many people questioning the safety of the sport.  Triathlon is, without a doubt, a physically challenging sport.  The swim portion carries with it certain inherent risk.  Becoming distressed during a swim leaves a person vulnerable to drowning.  There has been a call for action from race directors, coaches, and athletes from some notable names in the sport.  Here is a link to one such editorial.

Each of you, as athletes, can make sure you are as prepared as possible for the swim portion of your race.  Training in open water, training in similar temperatures, getting a properly fitted wetsuit and training in it, proper pre-race warm up, even cardiac screenings prior to undertaking major physical activity are all steps that you can take to protect yourselves.  As the organizer of the group, I will be making every attempt to offer open water swimming meetups and clinics as frequently as possible.  If you do not participate in these, please find similar events somewhere.

In our own way, each of us is a steward of the sport and as someone who loves it, who has used it to reclaim her life, her confidence, and her health, I cannot stand to see people turning away because they fear the swim portion.  We cannot make this, or life, absolutely safe... nor should we try... but if we can reduce the risk through proper preparation and education, then there is a responsibility to do so.

If I find out any further information, I will pass it along.  Stay safe, train hard, be well.


Here is a video clip of the swim conditions.

This combined with a reported water temperature of 51 degrees make for challenging conditions.  This is what I, and most, would consider an "advanced" race even though it is not iron distance.  Even still, a mass start- even a wave start- in open water can become dangerous for unprepared swimmers.

I recently spoke to my aunt, who had decided to give triathlon a try but did not have any strong swimming background or open water experience.  I cautioned her about the potential problems and told her that while it was absolutely an attainable goal, it should not be undertaken without some measure of training or preparation.  Initially I felt a little guilty for taking such a cautionary tone.  After this, I am glad I rained on her parade just a little.

Aside from the possibility for undesirable water conditions, there is the confusion of a mass start.  Even a wave start can get messy if the waves are large.  Then there are the things that we cannot foresee.  As we age, our bodies can hide a variety of conditions that can make themselves known at the most inopportune times.  Comfort, fitness, and preparedness are the only line of defense the athlete has.  The price of failure is drowning.

If you are new to the sport or know someone who is, please prepare for the swim (and get a few bike handling skills) if you do nothing else.  If you are unprepared for the bike or run, you will go slowly or at worst, not finish.  A few swim lessons focused on open water skills or some sessions with your local club will prove invaluable.  None of us are really ducks even if we kind of run that way.

Stay safe, train hard, be well.


  1. Hi Duckie,

    I am writing a site about Alcatraz. I wanted to ask you if you're interested in a short interview about the experience and maybe some tips.

    Sorry for asking here. I can't seem to find a contact (maybe because I don't have a blogspot account). Anyways, you can write to me here if you're interested.


  2. Oh, I almost forgot, here's a contact form to write back if you're interested!