So yesterday I did a sprint race in Pewaukee. For better or worse, this event has a reputation as a good one for first-timers. With the exception of an Elite division, waves are assigned in the order that you register, not by AG. I signed up late and was relegated to the final wave - 30.
Since I had nearly an hour to kill on the beach before my wave left, I got to watch most of the swim unfold. It was my 6th time doing this race, and I also do open water training in this lake, so I'm pretty familiar with it. The weather was calm-just a light wind coming across the lake and conditions were about as good as Pewaukee ever gets.
Within 20-30 minutes of the race starting, you could see people starting to cling to kayaks, boats, and the buoys. When my turn came to swim, I must have seen 15-20 people hanging on all possible objects in the water. I took a tight turn around the last corner buoy (a big one), and very nearly clocked 2 guys who were hanging on to the back side of it, invisible to oncoming swimmers. I'm told that lifeguards pulled several people back to shore.
The swim was only 400m long.
The this morning, we learned that one of the people who had to be assisted by a boat died: http://www.jsonline.com/news/waukesha/50617442.html
I feel terrible about the man who died and for the family he left behind. I don't know his specific circumstances--whether he had a preexisting medical condition, for example. So I'll make no assumptions about his particular case.
What I do know is this: there were many people who were clearly unprepared for a relatively easy open water swim. Lack of fitness, lack of swimming ability, or lack of comfort in open water kept the lifeguards busy all morning long.
This isn't specific to this race either. I've been at other races where I have heard people confess that it was their first time attempting to swim the distance, or, more disturbingly, their first time swimming in open water.
A race is NOT the place to figure out if you can swim 400m, 1500m, or 2.4 miles for the first time. It's not the place to see if you can handle choppy water, waves or currents. It is certainly NOT the place to learn whether or not you succumb to panic attacks when you can't see the bottom. And it's a bad place to learn that you don't like swimming surrounded by other people.
The sad fact is that people die swimming in triathlons regardless of their ability level. We know that many of these people are experienced athletes, and some are even very good swimmers. But for whatever reason, swimming seems to trigger cardiac events in some people. see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/fashion/31fitness.html
Here's where I get ticked. If someone enters a race not knowing how to swim, not prepared for the distance or conditions, or not knowing how to handle open water without freaking out, he is pretty clearly taking on a heightened risk of drowning. But there is also the possibility, however slight, that he is going to divert a lifeguard's attention from someone who has a true medical emergency. His lack of preparation may contribute to someone else dying. In either case, something he could have done to prevent a tragedy -- training in open water until comfortable -- contributed to a fatality.
Don't be that guy.
From what I saw yesterday, the race had enough lifeguards. Waves were spaced by roughly 90 seconds with 50 people per wave, so the water was not Ironman crowded by any stretch. It looked to the casual eye that the race organizers were taking the necessary precautions (though I don't know for sure if they had an ambulance on hand). But what has happened with these situations in the past is that a victim's family members have sued race organizers. Win or lose, lawsuits make towns less likely to permit events, RD's more likely to raise fees to cover insurance, and, in the long run, can limit racing opportunities for everyone.
We see some variation of this question on Trifuel all the time: "can I do X distance as my first race?" My answer from here on out is a question: "Can you do the swim, in open water and unassisted?" If not or if you don't know the answer, do your fellow competitors a courtesy and don't start the race until you've experienced open water enough to reasonably believe you can do it. If you believe you can do it, I'll say go for it.