ST. PETERSBURG — Philip Lahaye didn't sleep Saturday night. The race director for St. Anthony's Triathlon was up checking the weather report at the top of every hour.
"I knew I was going to have to make a difficult choice," Lahaye said. "The way the wind was blowing, I knew we could have a problem."
At 6 a.m., about 45 minutes before the pro ranks were about to hit the water for a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) swim on the open waters of Tampa Bay, Lahaye told his staff that he was canceling the swim leg of the Olympic-distance triathlon for nearly 4,000 recreational athletes.
"This was a historic decision," said race announcer Brian Harrington. "This is the first time in 26 years that we have had to do this."
Lahaye knew the controversial call would ruffle some feathers. But in recent years, thanks to a series of well-publicized triathlon-related deaths, organizers have become more conscious of the inherent dangers of the swim leg of their sport.
Two years ago, a 48-year-old Illinois woman died during the swim portion of the race. In 2006, on a day similar to Sunday, lifeguards and rescue personnel had to pull more than 80 people from the water.
"We are not taking any chances," Lahaye said.
Volusia County's Chris Nowviskie was one of a half-dozen lifeguards who came from the east coast to St. Petersburg to help with Sunday's triathlon.
"I think it was a smart decision," said Nowviskie, who works on Daytona Beach. "The conditions were extremely dangerous ... almost impossible to swim in. Even the most experienced open-water swimmers would have trouble out here."
The triathlon typically has about 100 safety personnel on the water. Lifeguards, on personal watercraft and paddleboards, are there to make rescues if needed. Dozens of sea kayakers also are on hand to render assistance to tired swimmers.
"I had 40 kayakers ready to support the swim," said Darry Jackson of Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. "But there was no way I wanted to send my kayakers out there. All but a few of them would have a hard time just not turning over."
Lahaye did let the field of about 80 professional triathletes hit the water. But many of them even had a difficult time battling the 2- to 3-foot seas kicked up by 25 mph winds during the night.
"I know it must have been a tough call," said Andy Potts, the former University of Michigan swimmer who won Sunday's pro race. "But it was the right call to make under the circumstances. There is no question that it would have been unsafe for a lot of people."
Sara McClarty, the 26-year-old from Clermont who was the first pro woman out of the water, agreed.
"It was a smart decision," she said. "Even some of the pros had trouble out there."
Joanna Zeiger, a 39-year-old veteran who won November's Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, added, "It was as brutal ... one of the hardest things that I have ever done."
Bev Buyse, the swim course supervisor, backed Lahaye's decision. "If he had not called the swim, something bad would have happened."
Amateur triathlete Nelson Mora, who swam for Venezuela in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, wasn't happy that officials canceled the swim.
"That is my best leg," said the 33-year-old investment consultant. "I was very, very disappointed. But I am not going to second-guess them."
Roy Borrego, a 44-year-old financial adviser from Punta Gorda, said he was disappointed as well.
"But I can't blame them," he said. "When it gets rough like that, you can't tell who is bobbing and who needs rescuing. There are just too many people out there to take a chance."
Lahaye said he knew many entrants would be upset with his decision.
"I am willing to take the heat if it means we might have saved somebody's life," he said.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808 or email@example.com.