4 Ways to Make Open Swim Safer

Countless surveys across all ages, genders, and distances support that the open swim portion of Triathlon is the most challenging and intimidating part of the race, and one of the biggest barriers to entry.

30 years’ worth of U.S. Triathlon data (1985-2015) bear out that the mortality rate is 1.5 deaths for every 100,000 participants, with 65% occurring while swimming. This is actually quite low, but at double the mortality rate for marathons, it’s still a concern for organizers.1


Triathlon’s largest participant group falls in the 40-49 year range, with slightly more male participants, both of which predispose this cohort for heightened traumatic health concerns. As does the fact that cold water swims are exceptionally hard on the heart. And, as race organizers are well aware, a top contributing risk factor is that unlike the other legs of a Tri, where a participant can stop and request help at any point, there are limited options for resting or receiving immediate aid in a large body of water.

An event director’s main lines of defense are to:

  • Strongly recommend that at-risk groups obtain medical clearance to participate and don’t attempt open water swims without training.
  • Design the safest course.
  • Ensure the best possible ability to act quickly and with the proper resources in the event of an emergency.
  • Promote the use of new safety devices for training and race day, like the lightweight Exterra Swim Buoy that provides visibility to your presence and can be fitted with GPS for tracking from onshore.


Dan Ingalls, owner of the California-based National Marine Safety Center LLC, believes there are 4 levels of preparation that can mitigate water challenges. Dan has overseen or participated in a wide range of events in the water safety capacity. As a rescue boat operator in the U.S. Coast Guard, a lifeguard on So Cal’s beaches, swim coach, competitive age group triathlete, and a professional provider of water support services, Ingalls has the experience to provide guidance and answers to stakeholders in the triathlon industry.

His top recommendations include:

1. Carefully Select Your Water Safety Coordinator, Staff & Volunteers

Event directors are challenged by the water on many fronts—just setting a course involves the consideration of depth, currents and bottom configuration. A lot of people out there are willing to help with the water, but the skillset, experience, and competence levels can vary widely or be non-existent.

The last thing any organizer would want is to put someone in a position of authority with little or no training, experience, or proper equipment. Recruiting a group of the local kids from the nearby YMCA pool deck to guard several hundred triathlon participants is not a valid substitute for professional water safety staff.

No matter where you are starting from, find or create a person who can focus solely on all things water. Having a designated Water Safety Coordinator is key to continued improvements, relationships and litigation defense. Invest in this person by providing training, continuous support and seek opportunities to develop their highest level of water safety/rescue understanding possible.

2. Recruit Advocates in Local Municipalities

Seek to identify two people from within your local municipalities. Find the highest ranking official you can who truly supports the event, along with someone who will have boots on the ground during the event. (Consider the Chamber of Commerce, police or fire department.) Each of these folks should identify with the event or, better yet, participate in triathlons or swimming events at one level or another.

The goal is to keep these two people engaged in your event over multiple years. Empowering them to become PART of the event, and having them work together, will get more done behind the scenes than you will ever know.

Post-event, be sure to keep these two advocates involved. Writing a letter of appreciation to the top of the department’s food chain, or sharing some event swag will go a long way toward keeping these people on the hook. This could help get others within these departments interested in the event, thus providing more support over the years. Your two municipal supporters will be organizational spark plugs, making life easier on countless levels.

3. Build Cooperation with USA Triathlon (USAT)

A great deal of pressure has been placed on USAT in recent years to reduce water-related issues and fatalities. Being a relatively young sport, reacting to the problem in a responsible and meaningful way is challenging to say the least. Remember, USAT’s current lists of requirements related to the water are MINIMUMS only.

Having their endorsement of water safety practices and available services to fill this demanding role will go way beyond a list of minimum sanctioning standards. As a governing body, USAT can’t be expected to have all the answers, but its unity behind standards of training and deployment of resources is the right course.

4. Ensure Your Lifeguards Have These 3 Qualities

Filling water safety roles at an event with just anyone holding the label lifeguard is foolhardy, ignorant and downright dangerous. While the attributes, skills and experience of a professional will never be cheap, cutting costs in any crucial event function could garner unfavorable attention in the event a critical incident occurs.

Make sure your lifeguards have:

    • Experience
      Seasoned professional lifeguards with experience working in coastal or open water environments are a must over those from strictly a pool environment.
    • Motivation
      Levels of motivation often align with the level of professionalism, certification and experience a lifeguard has worked to achieve. Use your instincts to watch how guards interact with you, your team, and participants at every touchpoint in your relationship.
    • Training
      The American Red Cross (ARC) does a great job and has set the standard for pool guards across the nation for decades. Its curriculum, standards and training programs have saved countless lives. Its “Water Front” training adjunct helped address the need for additional skills of those working in an open water environment.
      But be warned—in each of these cases, the student is “certified” to have passed the course at one time, but continuing education and physical requirements are left up to the employer. Kids can hold the title of lifeguard to fulfill the requirements of an insurance company with diverse levels of physical ability, experience, skill development, judgment, growth, leadership and scope of responsibilities.

      The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) is the organization recognized as the leader in coastal lifeguard operations and training.

      The USLA’s long history of success stems from its devotion to improvement and continuous communication with many of the industry’s elite leaders. The organization recognizes that the environmental intensity of the coastal and open water worlds around us demand an elevated degree of professionalism, seen in:

        • High degree of water skills just to be accepted into the USLA training sets all USLA-level guards apart from the rest.
        • Long-standing traditions and history help steer and shape young lifeguards well before their first day of training.
        • USLA certification is backed by a higher rate of pay, greater upward mobility and a true career path.

      The capabilities, training and motivation of typical USLA guards make them the most suited to protect competitors of triathlons and open water swims. When a USLA-level guard is standing in a tower, triathletes can be confident that if trouble occurs, these guards will be ready. It goes far beyond just looking the part.

With so much out of the event director’s hands, it’s crucial that triathlon and other swim event organizers enlist the highest degree of water safety skills, rescue talents and resources at every race.

Learn more about triathlon management with ACTIVE Works Endurance.


1Undark: Revisiting the Triathlon Death Rate