Category Archives: Research


I ThinkImagine that during a triathlon, a cyclist wrecked in the middle of the road, and everyone just stood around saying, “Poor guy.  Dude must have had a heart attack.  Or maybe he wasn’t all that good on a bike.  Nothing we can do now.” 

Sound ridiculous?  Most people understand that just because a person knows how to ride a bike, that’s not a guarantee that s/he will never fall off of it, nor get seriously hurt, nor even die.  Accidents happen.  And when they do, people notice.  And help.

With many a triathlon swim course, however, there is often a foregone conclusion that nothing can be done for accidents that occur in the water.  Recently a race director remarked about distress cases in the swim, “It’s not like you can drive an ambulance up to the athlete.”

For the cycling portion, USA Triathlon has helmet requirements and other rules to minimize life-threatening injuries on the bike course.  Many of those measures have come from experts in the field of cycling.  Yet, too often missing from the swim course are experts from the field of aquatic safety, the people trained to notice, as well as to advise on other swim precautions. 

Lifeguards discern the subtle changes in body position and behavior that indicate distress, or a more serious medical event in progress or imminent.  In pre-incident radio chatter, water rescuers say things like “head-up breaststroker coming your way, lifeguard six” and “pink cap on her back trying to unzip her wetsuit” and “yellow cap, number 1277, holding a kayak for the second time”, just a few of the precursors to and signs of swimming distress that lifeguards not only notice, but monitor closely to anticipate where the need to respond quickly may arise. 

As early as childhood, we learn that no one is ever drown-proof.  (Until recently, drowning was defined as any death that occurs within 24 hours of a submersion event.)  We are told to swim near a lifeguard, and that water safety requires different “layers” of protection.  Like riding a bike, just knowing how to swim is not a guarantee against in-water distress.  Even the most qualified swimmers, taking every precaution, are not exempt.  Yet, increasingly pervading triathlon culture is the disturbing concept that triathletes are tough, and shouldn’t NEED a lifeguard.0714Reef540

Yet unlike the land under a bike path, water is a different element.  It is big.  It can be quiet or deafening.  It resists, or rushes.  It can lift up, or swallow up.  It hides.  A swim path isn’t lined with spectators.  Even if it were, it’s not likely that any one of those cheering fans would detect something wrong, or be able to render the kind of aid that may be necessary.  Constant skilled supervision is required to spot the often vague and hazy signs of concern.  And a specific competence is demanded for rescue in that environment.

Insist on certified lifeguards at triathlons and open-water swim events. 

Because it’s not like riding a bike.


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Revised MAHC Module Posted: Facility Design and Construction

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent this bulletin at 12/16/2013 04:05 PM EST

Model Aquatic Health Code

December 16, 2013

Thank you for your interest in the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), a collaborative effort of public health, academia, and industry working to protect individuals, families, and communities from preventable waterborne diseases and injuries through evidence-based guidance. Read below for the latest information.


The Facility Design and Construction Module has been revised and re-posted after the first public comment period. View the revised module and the response to comments document.


Each module has a short synopsis or abstract highlighting the most critical recommendations.

You can monitor the status of all modules on the MAHC website.

2014 Pool & Spa Operator™ Handbook Released

The 2014 edition of the Pool & Spa OperatorHandbook, published by non-profit National Swimming Pool Foundation® (NSPF®), is now available and includes important updates and a new look. Offered in English and Spanish with both U.S. and Metric units, this fundamental training and reference manual is including operators, health officials, service who help keep pools safer, and open. Important updates to the 2014 version are found in Chapters 2, 6, 16, and Appendix C-3.

  • Chapter 2: Updated Material Safety Data Sheet section with information about transition to SDS (Safety Data Sheets) terminology and the Globally Harmonized System (GHS).
  • Chapter 6: A short section about the Ryznar Stability Index (RSI), another saturation index used by some industry professionals, has been added.
  • Chapter 16: Now includes a brief section, which describes the new Swimming Pool & Spa Routine Maintenance online course from NSPF.
  • Appendix C-3: A summary on two new Module Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) modules has been added: Fecal/Blood/Vomit Contamination Response module; and Preface/User Guide/Glossary modules are now included.

“NSPF has once again updated the Pool & Spa Operator handbook to be the most current reference manual in the industry. This will ensure that NSPF Instructors and professionals who focus on keeping pools and spas safer, and open, are educating to the most current industry standards,” said Alex Antoniou, Ph.D., NSPF Director of Educational Programs. The Pool & Spa Operator Handbook is also wearing a new cover with a copy of original artwork in pastel, titled “Swimmer” created in 1997, by acclaimed artist Mela Lyman, whose passion for swimming is often reflected in her artwork. Lyman has been on the faculty of The School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the combined degree program at Tufts University for over 20 years. To see more of Mela Lyman’s art, visit www.MelaLyman.

MAHC Recirculation Systems and Filtration (CH Comments)

CDC posts the Model Aquatic Health Code’s module for Recirculation Systems and Filtration for public comment with a closing date of October 9, 2013. Hydrologicblog posted this announcement with the supporting documents.

Recirculation Systems and Filtration

The Counsilman – Hunsaker team posted a group response in support of the public comment requirements. This response can be viewed at the below link.

MAHC Recirculation Systems Filtration comments

How Confident A Swimmer Are YOU?

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.drowning

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.