Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tragedy at famous Midmar Mile swim

Just hours after a reading a report on praise for the professional running of the aQuelle Midmar Mile in South Africa, reports came through that one competitor was missing, later confirmed drowned after his body was found after four days of searching.

This comes at a time where the spot light is firmly on the safety of open water swimming events, after US swimmer Fran Crippen died in a FINA Grand Prix in Dubai late last year.

Steve Munatones, a FINA technical committee member for open water swimming, visited the Midmar Mile on the weekend, and an article on the SAinfo website quotes him stating that "it sets the worldwide bar in every category." A former world 25-kilometre open water champion and coach of the USA's national team at numerous open water World Championships, Munatones praised event organisers for their safety, hospitality, organisation, the inclusion of disabled athletes (he is involved with the Special Olympics), signage, awards, and the scale of the event.  He has witnessed hundreds if not thousands of open water events, so his comments certainly have years of experience to support his view.

Ultimately open water swimming does have an element of risk that cannot be avoided.  Unlike in a running race, if a competitor suddenly suffers some form of 'incident' during their race, they can't just stop and sit down, usually amongst spectators who can administer what can sometimes be life saving medical assistance while medical staff arrive.  Swimmers who come in to difficulty must fight for attention amongst what can be huge packs of athletes, surrounded by flailing arms, and churning water.  Fellow swimmers who may swim over a person struggling to breath will notice nothing more than a hinderance to their stroke and keep on going - not realising that 'someone' may be fighting for their life.

According to the report, the man, Nicky Mellet, age 45, was registered as missing from the Midmar Mile when his transponder was still not clocked over the finish line once all visible competitors where out of the water.   This is a common safety measure for race directors to track competitors, and is set as a required safety standard for water safety events run under Surf Life Saving protocols in some countries such as those established by SLS New Zealand.

The running of this massive event is no small feat when you are dealing with such a huge number of athletes..   The event, which began in 1973 with 153 entrants, boasted a world record setting 16,200 entries in 2010.  With so many athletes, safety becomes an even more challenging task to manage.  According to comments made by one of the race organisers, there were 124 lifeguards out on the course covering approximately 2000 swimmers at a time.

There have been cases in open water swims of a competitor death as the result of pre-existing medical conditions that resulted in an unrelated cause such as a heart attack occurring during the swim, supported through coroners inquiries.  No matter how safely an event is run, in an environment such as this, some things are beyond the control of race directors.

Given that the race appeared to be extremely well managed, it will be interesting to hear the outcome of what may be a coroners report on the circumstances around the accident.  While there has been some rumor Mr Millet, died of a heart attack, but this is yet unconfirmed.

A full run down on the event (prior to news of the drowning) and Steve Munatones thoughts on the Midmar Mile can be found here.

Swimming World report on the missing swimmer can be found here. has regular updates as well as reader feedback.

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