ST. PETERSBURG — The drowning of a 48-year-old Illinois woman during last year's St. Anthony's Triathlon illustrates that the sport does have its inherent dangers.
Nationwide, there were at least five triathlon-related deaths. Most were the result of undiagnosed, existing medical conditions, but at least one appeared to be swim-related.
Juli Wilson Marshall, an attorney from Chicago, died three days after being pulled from the water by lifeguards. Early reports suggested the mother of four might have been kicked in the face during the crowded swim, but a medical examiner's report said there was no evidence of such an injury.
St. Petersburg's Brian Harrington, a former St. Anthony's race director and member of the sport's national governing board, said any high-exertion sport has risks.
"Before you enter any long-distance event, such as a marathon or triathlon, you need to make sure you have the proper medical clearance and undergo adequate training," said Harrington, the vice president of USA Triathlon.
Harrington warned against what the media has dubbed the "Oprah Effect."
"Just because Oprah Winfrey goes out and runs a marathon doesn't mean everybody should go out and run a marathon," he said.
Swimming a mile in the open water can be a challenge, even for a seasoned lap swimmer.
"There are no black lines to follow," said Joe Lain, the supervisor for Clearwater Beach Safety, which hosts a series of 1-mile ocean swims each summer. "You have tides, waves, currents to contend with. It can get a little wild out there."
St. Anthony's always has gotten high marks for professionalism and organization.
"Our first concern is always the safety of our athletes," said race director Philip Lahaye, himself an accomplished triathlete. "We have never tried to put more people on the race course just to make a little more money."
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've worked a lot of triathlons, said Darry Jackson, who coordinates the kayak support for the race. "Last year's St. Anthony's was the best organized and equipped that I have seen as far as water safety goes."
Rescue personnel will have a new tool at their disposal this year: the St. Petersburg Fire Department's 28-foot Boston Whaler, which comes equipped with advanced life support.
Nobody knows until race day whether the swim will be rough or calm. But one thing is sure: The 0.9-mile course will be a challenge to those unaccustomed to open-water swimming.
"I would not recommend St. Anthony's as a first triathlon for anybody because of the swim," said Jackson, who has completed an Ironman-distance event. "They should start off with a sprint. It is much easier, safer."