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Scuba team is key to preventing Ironman swim accidents

July 24, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Gazing into Mirror Lake from the beach dock at 7:15 a.m., not a trout is in sight as thousands of green and pink-capped Ironmen and Ironwomen encircle the pier.

As music wails through speakers and throngs of caffeine-charged loved ones howl from the beach, the surface of the water turns into a roaring whitewash.

Fifteen feet below this cacophony, it is all just a murmur to Matt Bogert. The Ironman scuba captain and several members of his rescue team sit and swim at the lake bottom as the bubbling whitewater surface above them begins to resemble a washing machine.

Article Photos

Matt Bogert (right) the captain of the Ironman Lake Placid volunteer scuba rescue team, takes a short break with several members of his crew during the middle of the 140.6-mile swim, bike, run event’s swim portion.
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

"Even for a diver, this event is completely different," Bogert said. "It's just this wave of swimmers going over top of you. It was just awesome."

At 6:40 a.m. on Ironman Sunday morning, the surface of this mountain village's central body of water turns into a web of aquatic emergency rescue infrastructure, as far as the eye can see. Motorboats get special permission to propel the half-mile down the 1.2-mile swim loop's central corridor. Dozens of local residents man stand-up paddleboards and kayaks to herd goggled swimmers along buoys. And at the beach dock, Race Director Greg Borzilleri and others walkie-talkie instructions and questions to water safety personnel who sit in boats at the other end of the lake.

That half-mile away, as swimmers make the rectangular turn to return to the beach, members of Bogert's scuba rescue crew are stationed in case the worst-case scenario plays out. Bogert and his team decided to place divers at the turnaround this year for the first time in several years to handle a hypothetical situation such as this: Far away from all the noise, an athlete cramps up, swallows water, becomes distressed and sinks below the surface amid a crowd of other swimmers.

This nightmarish situation has never played out in Ironman Lake Placid's 19 years, and it didn't this year, either. Neither Bogert nor any other Lake Placid diver has ever had to conduct an underwater rescue or recovery. But as the only personnel allowed under Mirror Lake's surface during the race, these dozen volunteers remain alert and team-up as buddies in the case a minor accident such as a cramp turns into something far worse.

"In the beginning," Bogert said, "people are bumping. They may be getting hit and kicked, just because everybody is just trying to do their own thing. And at the end of the race, when everybody is tired and kind of running out of steam, so to speak, that's when swimmers may be more prone to danger."

Tragedies have happened at Ironman events elsewhere. Just three months ago, a Texas man died at a hospital after he became distressed during the swimming portion of an Ironman event and needed to be retrieved.

Bogert and longtime Ironman Lake Placid diver Joe LaPierre, who is also a New York state forest ranger, said each year divers need to stay alert to panic, anxiety and heart attacks in the water. In the two years that Bogert, who is a diver with the Ulster County Sheriff's Office, has volunteered here, no rescues needed to be conducted above or below the surface. The worst incidents he's encountered have required assisting cramped or distressed swimmers who then needed to be connected with a boat to remove them from a race.

But during the heightened excitement and pressure of the early morning swim leg, panic attacks have occurred from, say, a swimmer swallowing water after another competitor splashed it into his or her mouth.

"The mammalian reflex," LaPierre said.

So divers like Bogert buoy themselves above and below the surface by adjusting the buoyancy compensators on their vests to check to see if anyone is struggling. If they are, they will signal to the paddleboard and kayak personnel on the side of the swim lane, who will then either radio in to the beach dock, blow a whistle or raise a red flag to alert a nearby boat crew.

Rather than dive like years past, LaPierre this year provided that in-boat assistance in his forest ranger rescue vehicle. Just 30 minutes into the swim portion of the 140.6-mile triathlon, LaPierre brought a distressed wetsuit-wearing woman back to the dock in this boat. Her Ironman dreams were dashed early on this cloudy day.

These kinds of rescues are a much more ideal situation than what LaPierre used to experience at Ironman Lake Placid. Starting with 2013's races, Ironman began a roll-out type start here in which 10 competitors at a time enter the water at the sound of a tone, every few seconds. The thought behind this strategy is to facilitate safe entry into the water for competitors while also allowing their tracking chips to cross the start line rather than further down the Mirror Lake dock.

In years past, all competitors began the race at the sound of a cannon, 3,000 or so bodies flushing into what resembled a boiling lake, flailing for position. LaPierre said this resulted in a high amount of injuries due to bruises or worse from accidental kicking and striking.

A common scene would be of an Ironman racer diving into the water, disappearing into the whitewater mass, only to then attempt to fight the swimming stampede by jettisoning out perpendicular to all other swimmers, jockeying with his or her elbows to get to the safe confines of the beach pier to assess injuries. This was just the start of his or her 140.6-mile journey.

"We used to pull people out like crazy," LaPierre said. "They'd get kicked in the face and everything else. They were in rough shape. They'd get beat up pretty hard. We would try to grab them without getting lifeguards hurt and stuff. It was brutal. We'd just constantly (pull) people up onto the dock.

"The new start, it works tremendously," he added.

Another safety precaution LaPierre helped bring to the race was the placement of several safety mats, almost like docks, along the swim course, in case an athlete needs to, say, swim over and stretch out a cramp.

In the worst case where an athlete would become submerged and sink to the bottom of the lake, Bogert and his team have a specific, practiced routine. If they've been alerted to a sunken swimmer, by a paddleboard or kayaker who has marked the location, divers find that competitor's last known position. Depending on the depth of where they submerged, a body can travel that equivalent distance in a circular pattern. So if a swimmer sank at a depth of 30 feet, he or she could be spread out over a distance of 60 feet.

Circular and grid searches would then be conducted. When the swimmer has been located, divers are taught to reach around with their right hand to grab the swimmer, so they don't obstruct their exhaust vent, inflator and deflator on the left side of their suits. Divers would then hold the swimmer's back to their chest, rising to the surface slowly to prevent the possibility of decompression sickness from a buildup of nitrogen bubbles in either's system.

"We need to stay rested and fresh," Bogert said, "and have a full tank of air for sure in the unlikely event something does happen and a swimmer does submerge. We need all energy and air to enact that rescue procedure."



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