Have you experienced a Panic Attack in a Triathlon Swim?

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David’s article was published in the Washington Post on November 14th.

I got this email from David Brown of the Washington post…thanks to anyone who emailed David with your story!

I am a science reporter at The Washington Post (also a triathlete) who is doing a story on deaths in triathlon. As you know there have been a bunch this season (two at NYC, two in different Vermont races, one at Dewey Beach in Delaware three weeks ago, one at the Nation’s Tri in D.C. in early September). As always, most occurred in the swim. I am looking for some triathletes will to talk to me about panic attacks in the swim leg of races, as I think this is an overlooked and underdiscussed possible explanation for these deaths. I see that you blog has had some interesting discussions on this topic in recent years. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get in touch with the people posting to the discussions.

Are you willing to talk to me on the record about this phenomenon if you have ever experienced a panic attack (or some version of one)? Can you give me the names of any triathletes who have had such experiences whom I could contact and see if they are willing to speak on the record?

thanks and best
David Brown

David Brown National Staff The Washington Post


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Posted in >Swimming
3 comments on “Have you experienced a Panic Attack in a Triathlon Swim?
  1. Alec Riddle says:

    Ever heard of a World Champion having a Panic Attack?

    Well it happened to me, so panic attacks come in various guises and are experienced at different levels. After the passing of my 19 year old stepson in 2004 I’ve committed myself to reinventing myself, particularly in terms of health and fitness and have lost 60 Pounds along my journey.


    One of my goals was to qualify for the World Iron Man Championships in 2010- the year I turned 50 and I did manage to qualify, recording a 9hr58 Iron Man In South Africa, in April 2010. I then went to prepare in Boulder and was in great form, but had a high speed bicycle crash (shattered clavicle in five pieces) the Saturday before I was due to fly to Kona.

    So instead of flying to Hawaii, I was on the next plane back to SA for a collar bone operation on my 50th birthday. Plan B surfaced and 7 weeks after the operation I lined up for my first ever World Championships in Clearwater, Florida and managed to make the podium (3rd) in my age category. Unfortunately I snapped the titanium plate, so had to fly back to SA for another collar bone operation.

    This year I failed to qualify for Hawaii, so set my sights on the World 70.3 Championships in Las Vegas on 11 September. Race day dawned and I was ready, but this would be my first non wetsuit triathlon and I was not prepared for that at all.

    Many people will know that a wetsuit gives you more buoyancy, makes ‘not so good’ swimmers faster (like me) and gives you more confidence. So when the gun went I had not factored in I was without my wetsuit aid and hurtled off to chase the leaders and tuck in behind some good feet.

    The only problem was that, unbeknowingly, I was going too fast and 7-800 yards into the 1.2 mile swim I hit a brick wall…. I was hyperventilating, was forced to doggy paddle initially and swim a few breastroke strokes….. my initial reaction was total panic, as you are being swum over and bumped left, right and centre….. at first I thought of survival and then of the race.

    Fortunately I had grown up on the coast, so had had my fair share of being dumped and rolled by big waves and no matter how many times you thought you were going to drown, somehow you always made it if you remained calm. So I had the presence of mind to calm myself down and try and shut out all of the negatives.

    I started focussing on the positives, the fact that there were no waves, no currents and that I was trained to recover from over exertive intervals….so in time I recovered my composure and coninued swimming albeit much slower than normal and exited the swim thinking my World Championship challenge was over.

    Thank goodness a 70.3 swim is followed by a 56 mile bike and a 13 mile run, so there was time to make up lost ground and I managed to catch the race leader Bill Ma Cleod (USA) with a mile and a half to go and go on to strike Gold in my second World Championship event.

    Don’t ask me how? I don’t know the answer as besides the worst swim of my life, my calf also went into spasm midway through the run (I have a gammy calf). Fortunately I had watched the movie 127 hours on the plane over and I kept thinking if he can cut through his arm with a penknife, then I can take this calf pain.

    All I can say is that my late Stepson Reece (the catalyst) and my Dad (my hero) who passed away in April gave me so much inspiration, it was like they were urging me on.

  2. Andrew Gills says:

    I have twice experienced freezing panic attacks in cold water swims – both without wetsuit.

    The first time was when I was a high school athlete. We had national junior championships in Adelaide and the water was very cold. I was one of only a handful of athletes who didn’t have a wetsuit. Out at the first buoy (a long way from shore) my lungs shriveled from the cold and I couldn’t breath. I panicked and started thrashing around. Somehow I got out of the water okay and continued my race. It was frightening though.

    The second time was in August this year (15 years later) when I swam at a local race (August is Winter in Australia). I didn’t have a wetsuit and the water was somewhere between 17’C and 19’C (depending on whose thermometer you believed). I jumped in for the start of the race and my lungs shriveled and I couldn’t breath. This time I knew not to panic. I dropped right back out of the thrashing start pack and did breast stroke with my head out of the water for about 200m (the whole swim was 750m). As my body temperature equalized I started to swim freestyle. Every time I hit a cold spot I did breast stroke again.

    In future, if the water temperature is 19’C or less I will either borrow a wetsuit or just not swim. I can see how dangerous both situations were. There were a number of swimmers pulled out by rescue boats in both my cold water races.

    As for people dying – I’ve never heard of anyone dying in a swim leg on a triathlon. However, I live in the sub-tropics so even our cold water is many people’s warm water. I can imagine that less capable swimmers who take off too close to the front of the swim leg might get beaten up a bit or might get pushed under and drown that way … *shudder at the thought*

  3. toironally says:

    Hi there.
    Following reading your post about panic attacks in water I wanted to share with you my experience of a first open water swim in a triathlon wetsuit.
    I had never swum a tri wetsuit until March of this year. My wetsuit was brand new and I had tried it on a home and that was it.
    I was quite excited about my first swim in it. I found a lake that was advertised on the internet as open for open water practice Saturday and Sunday mornings. I thought great. An early start on Sunday followed by a run down my local running club: perfect training.
    I went on my own to the lake. I got there about 06:00a.m. There were a about 4 people milling about the edge setting up tables. I filled in a form, confirmed I was a competent swimmer , paid £5 and got ready.
    I entered the water quickly for it was cold, and despite my very tight wetsuit the chill permeated through the layer. I swam quickly in front crawl for 200 meters, and then something only to be described as my lungs shrinking to the size of golf balls occurred. I found it very difficult to breath and a wave of panic swept through me. I was in the middle of the lake away from anyone who could see me. Part of the club conditions is to wear a bright swim cap so to be seen and maybe this is what the rescue canoe spotted from the opposite end of the lake.
    I couldn’t believe what was happening. I thought I was a strong swimmer. I could swim in a pool for hundreds of lengths, so this was a shock to experience such breathlessness.
    I didn’t like the rescue canoe working it’s way towards me. The rescuer was wondering why I had stopped swimming, but I didn’t want to be rescued. I wanted to sort this out myself.
    So I tread water for maybe two minutes which helped me regain some oxygen to my tissues. I still felt very panicky but I have never had a panic attack and I was not about to have my first. I told myself over and over to relax my breathing, and once I’d recovered I swam breaststroke to the edge and got out.

    I stood at the side of the lake in a Stan Laurel kind of way scratching the top of my head trying to work out what had just happened. A gentleman came over asking me if I was ok. I didn’t know who he was and a few weeks later I discover he is a triathlon coach. Upon hearing my account of events, taught me how to acclimatise in the cold lake before initiating the swim. This has been the most useful information for my lake swimming to date. And quite simply I needed to allow my body temperature to adjust to the water temperature before exerting myself. Many triathletes set off very quickly to make a quick get away from the vast pack and if amateurs set off too quickly this can be their downfall.
    Now, before any lake swim, I make sure my suit is on correctly and the sleeves are pulled right up to allow great rotation (another tip from the tri coach). The wetsuit is design to give buoyancy but It is harder to swim wearing it.
    The coach advised me to lower myself into the water slowly and to float on my back for a minute or two , paying special attention to relaxation and breathing and when ready start off slowly.
    After the coach spent 15 minutes with me giving me this useful information I restarted my lake swim and I completed a 1500m circuit without any difficulties, and I have never experienced anything like this breathlessness or anxiety since.
    I hope these few, simple words are useful.
    Allyson Fenlon

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