Archived Outdoors

Triathlons aim to make treachorous lake swims safer

out frThe swim leg of a triathlon is notoriously daunting. Of the sport’s three heats — swimming, biking and running — the water is the most brutal and dangerous.

It’s every person for him or herself as the racers jump from a dock or surge forward from shore, creating a sea of flailing limbs and churning water as they jockey to get an early lead off the start. 


“We’ve got arms and legs flying; you can’t see the bottom,” said Susan Wilkins, who organizes the King of the Smokies Triathlon at Lake Junaluska with her husband Bill. “There are some people that train in the swimming pool, and they’ve never trained in a lake before.”

Triathlons have exploded in popularity during the past decade, but with that has come an increase in deaths along triathlon courses, mostly drownings.

Haywood boasts two triathlons with lake swims — one of Lake Logan and one on Lake Junaluska. The event organizers are taking extra precautions to ensure America’s ever-popular endurance race remains safe.

Related Items

“There’s been a lot of publicity lately about triathlons not being safe,” said Susan Wilkins, who organizes the King of the Smokies Triathlon at Lake Junaluska with her husband Bill.

In New York City, two competitors died during the swimming portion of the city’s triathlon in 2011. And last year, during the city’s first Ironman event, a 43-year-old man died during the opening leg of the race in the Hudson Bay.

Similar deaths have transpired in San Diego, Wisconsin, Cleveland and other locations. The high-profile deaths that took athletes at the peak of their fitness prompted USA Triathlon, the country’s governing body for the sport, to launch investigations into the incidents. Between 2003 and 2011, 45 people have died at triathlon events sanctioned by the organization. Of those deaths, 31 occurred during the swim.

At the Lake Junaluska triathlon in late August there are two race distances: the Sprint, which includes a quarter-mile swim and the International, which includes a one-mile swim. Race coordinators Bill and Susan have employed several tactics to prevent any problems, including emergency response personnel and volunteer boaters from a kayak club based in Sylva. Swimmers are allowed to take a breather resting on the boats without being disqualified.

The racers also start the race in waves as opposed to a mass start, which can create chaos when too many swimmers jump in the water at once. 

Along with the staggered start, each group of racers has a uniquely colored swim cap, so officials can identify swimmers who begin to lag behind.

“A lot of the safety is we watch everything,” Bill said. “We watch everything that goes on.”

Lifeguards will also be on the lake watching swimmers at the King of the Smokies Triathlon. Sanctioned races are required to have one certified lifeguard per 50 participants, but spotting at triathlons is not your typical lifeguard gig.

After talking with other triathlon organizers in the region, King identified a need at large events for not just lifeguards but lifeguards who are experienced in working triathlons.

He would like to assemble of group of specialized lifeguards to form a traveling team on the triathlon circuit around the Southeast.

“We want to take them a step further and help them train to be a lifeguards for triathlons,” Bill said. And competitors are paying attention, more so now than ever, to the safety amenities of each event before signing up. “It just works out so much better to have good lifeguards — that draws more people to your event.”

Even Ironman, a famed name in triathlon events, has come up with a new set of policies for the 2.4-mile water section of its events this season. The organization has decided to increase the number of rescue boats and life-saving personnel at each race, in addition to placing flotation rafts along the water routes for swimmers to rest on without being disqualified.

Organizers are even promising to call off or shorten races when the water is too hot or cold, another factor that can cause stress on competitors.

Ironman will pilot rolling starts in waves instead of mass starts at several of their races this year. The Ironman races are notorious for hordes of competitors pouring into the water at once.

“Can you imagine 2,500 people starting at the same time and going in the same direction?” said Greg Duff, organizer of the Lake Logan Multisport Festival.

The multisport festival this August will include several water-hybrid races. There’s a standard triathlon with all three legs — swim-bike-run. There’s also an open water race, which is a straight-up lake swim.

And then, there’s everything in between: an aquathlon with swimming and running and an aquabike with swimming and biking.

Duff said his event uses a wave-style start, and he employs a special water safety coordinator to ensure lifeguards, emergency responders and volunteers are all on hand to assist with swimmers.

As the events become more popular, safety precautions are becoming more important. As many as 800 competitors may be in Lake Logan at once for this year’s events, in part because it is hosting a regional and a national championship in two separate events. In only its second year, race organizers for the Lake Junaluska triathlon are expecting 300 participants.

Between 2003 and 2011, the number of triathlon participants each year in the United States has grown from nearly 200,000 to just under 500,000. And the sport is also becoming more popular with the older age categories, retired people who have time to train, expendable income to attend races and are looking for a way to stay in shape.

 “We did notice that people participating in events are getting older and older,” said Ricky Mehaffey Jr., assistant chief of the Haywood County Rescue Squad, a group of volunteer paramedics that helps at the King of the Smokies Triathlon. “One was in his 70s last year. It’s really impressive.”

But Mehaffey said that age is not necessarily biggest telltale risk when it comes to health episodes at a race event, although it may play a part. From bike accidents, scrapes and bruises to water emergencies, fatigue is usually the common denominator.

“People get tired and then they start getting hurt,” Mehaffey said. “They fall or wreck their bicycle, or during the swimming part of it, they get stuck out in the middle of the water.”


Lake Logan 

The Lake Logan Multisport Festival coming up Aug. 3-4 in Haywood County is continuing to grow in popularity and esteem.

Put on by Glory Hound Events, the festival is preparing for 800 participants in the various races held during the course of the weekend. The Lake Logan Multisport Festival was started in 2006 as a single Olympic distance triathlon and has expanded during the years to a multi-day, multi-race affair.

Now the line-up includes both Olympic and Sprint distance triathlons, a straight open water swim, an aquathlon (swim and run), and new this year is an aquabike race (swim-bike.) 

The venue has been selected to host the USA Triathlon Mid-Atlantic Sprint Triathlon Regional Championships, which mean those who place at Lake Logan automatically qualify for the national triathlon championships. Lake Logan will also be the site of Aquathlon National Championships

The theme of this year’s event is “A Weekend of Champions.” A special wave in the Sprint and Olympic triathlons will be open only to top finishers in one of 60 other triathlons around the Southeast.

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.