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Date: November 17, 2014

Author: Steven N. Tomboni

SWIM>Bike>Run.  Triathlon (Swim Safety)

By Steven N. Tomboni 

Triathlon has a different meaning to those of us how own a race or are race directors. It means a mountain of logistics: permits to planning; potholes and new pavements; politics of all stripes; volunteers; police; equipment of all sizes and type; timing systems; to weather forecasts; without the benefit of mistakes or only needing to be right 33% of the time and all that is just for starters. 

This article will pay special attention to the first leg; the Swim. It has to be all about a professional set of safety standards for the water.

As an owner, USAT Level I Race Director (RD), veteran triathlete since 1992, and the father and husband to triathletes, it takes a special set of planning skills to have a successful race. It takes even additional skills to produce a safe swim. As the RD for Long Course World’s in 1996; the first chip-timed triathlon, and Long Course Nationals in 2002/2003, plus the added benefit of being the CEO of the Muncie, Indiana 50-Meter outdoor pool, safety is the number one most important concern before, during and after every swim.

We all know the stats of the swim being the most dangerous leg. The number of swim fatalities is near 60 in the last decade. Plus we have the ever present non-swimmer. The issue of the many triathletes nervous in a bathtub will not be addressed here; but would be another article in itself.

In Muncie, Indiana we have had the benefit of hosting triathlons with a perfect safety record since 1980. We also have two legends to call for assistance, advice and on-site work race day: Tom Leaird, internationally renowned dive master, instructor/author and drowning prevention expert; and Dr. David Costil, Retired Chairman of the Ball State Human Performance Lab.  Add in my father, Norman Tomboni, a retired engineer and we have a strong team of professionals.

We have some basic assumptions which set a professional triathlon race organizer apart from the novice or part-time rookie:

  • You or your top staff has done a triathlon or 50
  • You own or hire a professional timing system
  • Plenty of lifeguards are used, along with boats, kayaks and one diver at minimum
  • Transition area has individually numbered spots for each athlete
  • There are 2-way communications for swim leadership

First point of importance … course set-up, design, equipment and measuring the right distance. As a race director the course needs to be measured as accurately as possible and as advertised. A 1.2-mile swim needs to be 1.2-miles. 1.5-miles might not set well with your athletes or a jury if there is an accident.

Checklists are invaluable:

  • Know the body of water and all the agencies that operate the water. Swim the lake yourself if you can and know the area around swim in and swim out.
  • Install a swim safety plan with standard operating procedure for distressed swimmer, safety personnel needing assistance during the swim, lost swimmer protocols and the actions needed to declare the swim clear of all swimmers.
  • Have an equipment checklist: boats, kayaks, emergency action boat, jet-skis, missing swimmer markers, buoy’s with proper lines, inflating tanks, counterweights, carabineers, GPS tools, life jackets, rescue tubes, 2-way communications, timing systems and proper set-up for swim in/swim out 100% pad operations.
  • Have trained personnel:  All with proper training and certification: Swim course safety director, diver, lifeguards, boat captains, ambulance on station, shore director, transition director, timing director, DNR boat for proper lake/water way security and shore safety staff.
  • Buoys need to be positioned the day before the swim with proper line-of-site for a swimmer and lines the proper depth with counter weights to keep them in position for most weather conditions possible in the next 24 hours. Re-checking the accuracy race morning is must!  

Next comes race day morning. 

After a strongly encouraged warm-up time; it is all about the start operations. All the options have been tried, evaluated, tested, reviewed and tried again; mass, small waves, large waves and 100% time trial. We hold the position that the greatest safety can be achieved along these lines:

Wave one: Fast swimmers only; athletes that can win the race/Elites/Professionals. These athletes go off on the start cannon.

All others: Time trial starts every 5 to 10 seconds depending on the spread of the swimmers in the first 100 yards. The bottom line is safety. Of the more than 75 races done along these lines, 95% of all rescues have been performed in the first 100 yards. How can any professional lifeguard rescue an athlete in distress if you can’t see them? In a TT swim, athletes can be seen in the sections designated by the swim director since they are spread out across the swim course. Boats and kayak teams have sections. The EAP boat has the responsibility to respond to a looming crisis as designated by watching all the kayaks and boats for signals of a problem. The shore director with binoculars watches the whole course for issues and uses the 2-way radios for communications.

Decel actions:

As the last few swimmers approach the swim out; usually in the low teens in terms of numbers of swimmers left in the water, the swim director, shore director, timing director and transition director start counting heads, comparing pulled swimmers’ numbers and bike number left in transition with the chip timed athletes in and out of the water. If there are 9 swimmers left and 9 bikes left in transition then everyone is pretty happy. 

Standard operation is to follow each athlete to the swim out and compare each of the last few swimmers with the transition area bike number.  Typically, it doesn’t always go perfectly.

Swimmers left but 11 bikes, we can’t find athlete 115-did they get in the water? Did they get out? Are they on the EAP boat? And many other possibilities. We have had instances where athletes decided to vomit in the weeds and not report in until the missing swimmer action plan is activated!

All these operational actions can be provided by a professional triathlon organization. Are all triathlon race organization providing the correct level of water safety?  

I'm happy to answer any questions you have, just email Feedback@triathlonbusinessintl.com 

Steven N. Tomboni
Founder/CEO America Multi-Sport, Inc
CEO Cardinal Aquatics & Wellness, Inc/Tuhey Pool 50m Outdoor Aquatics Center

Steve is in his third decade of organizing more than 950 events: youth and adult sports leagues, tournaments, programs and host of ground breaking “Life Changing Finish Lines’. As an athlete, he has finished 300 triathlon/multi-sport and road races since 1983 including Ironman Florida in 2002 and the 1stPowerman Alabama in 1996, The Chicago and Columbus marathons as well. Steve is also the author of the 1996 ITU Long Course technical manual, and is a Level I USA Triathlon Certified Race Director. The 1996 World’s was voted the international race of the year and the 2002 Nationals was awarded the national race of the year. The 1996 World’s was the 1st chipped timed triathlon in the world. 


November 18, 2014 - Steve:  Your safety guidelines for the swim was excellent. Even though I have been race directing for 25 years (Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake, Lubbock, TX and other smaller races) I found the article to be very informative. While reading it I was checking off in my mind the points you made to make sure we were in harmony(we were!!). Looking forward to reading your input on the bike and run. ~ Mike Greer, CEO, Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake  

November 18, 2014 - Steve: Kevin shared your excellent piece on swim safety considerations with a few folks, and I just wanted to thank and applaud you on its content.  I am suggesting we (USAT) share this throughout the triathlon RD community. Barry Siff. President, USA Triathlon Board of Directors


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