Swim Support - another story of the St. George Ironman from Michelle's point of view...

(edited for more detail to clear up a few inconsistencies 3 days after originally posted)

It looked like it was going to be a perfect Ironman race day.  Bill and I woke up at 3:30am to load up and head out to Sand Hollow Reservoir with our Kayaks and Paddleboards.  Had our regular meetings and split up into group.  There were roughly 60 kayakers/Paddleboarders.

Swim Support has several layers of help on the water
1 -Kayakers and SUP paddlers in the thick of the swimmers that usually act as floating bouys to get swimmers to help. Geared with Whistles and PFD's - This was my job. 
2 - Lifeguards amonsts the swimmers and paddlers on paddleboards to get in fast and quick to a swimmer in serious danger.
3 - Jet skis with sleds  to haul swimmers quickly to a boat.  They cannot hang out among the swimmers due to the danger of the fumes and machinery.
4 -  there were a couple dozen large rescue boats around the perimeter geared with divers, lifeguards and EMT's as needed.

We were well equipped to handle this race.

We had no idea we were about to experience the roughest swim in Ironman History.

At the early morning meeting we were told that several hundred were doing their first Ironman and to be ready for those that underestimate the swim.  It is the most dangerous portion of the race for those under prepared.  Our job as Paddle support was to be in the thick of the swimmers pretty much in the way if necessary and be with them to pick them up and signal for a jet ski or boat to take them.

We were told to expect mild wind about 9mph.  no sweat, I can do that.

I get into my wetsuit.  I normally wear just regular swim wear and a few layers to keep warm.  The wetsuit is new for me.  I have worn it a few times.  It's not a tri suit - it's thicker warmer and more buoyant.  It's kept me afloat many times in the water.  I don't even think about a life vest.  I've never done swim support without a life vest before. I have no idea why the thought didn't even cross my mind.  But Looking back now, I am very glad I made the decision to wear the wetsuit I never have worn doing swim support before.  Normally I am uncomfortable in it but extra warm and buoyant. However after this day - I will never make the mistake of neglecting to wear a life vest ever again. From now I on I will wear both.

The sun was rising beautifully, I am on the water on my paddleboard that the night before I was doing Yoga on the same board on the same lake in calm water.  I feel good about my skills on my board.  I have bragged often that I have never fallen off my board.  I paddle a minimum of 2 times a week on this same lake.  I have paddled into heavy winds trying to race my husband in a headwind.  I am good on my board.

I have assisted in many swim events as a either a kayaker or stand up paddler on this same lake.  The conditions never were more than just slightly breezy.  It's usually non-eventful and no more than just a nice day cheering the swimmers on and maybe pulling one or 2 people from the water and letting several catch their breath before going on.  In all the races I have done in the past I have only had to really rescue one swimmer that needed to be pulled from the water.  I am usually just a floating bouy for a swimmer to catch their breath.  Today was going to change all that for me.

Ironman St. George 2012 was about to go down in History as the most dangerous swim and the toughest ironman day in history.  But we had no idea it was coming.

 Before the race starts the music is going I'm standing and dancing on my board and enjoying the party.  The Ironman speaker system is pumping out some great tunes and the announcer is having a great time playing it up - good party!

 My husband and I are with the big group toward the starting line.  In fact the paddlers are asked to mark the starting line and push the swimmers into position between the starting buoys marking the correct place to start.  I happen to be the kind of person that takes my job seriously when we do swim support.  After the Pro racers take off, we were asked to keep the other athletes/swimmers behind the starting line, between the buoys and those that were warming up needed to do so in the proper areas as designated.  LOL!  yeah... try to tell them that.  I did.  While most of the athletes follow instructions and were in the proper starting area, there were a handful telling me to "chill out lady"  "it's not a big deal."    Sorry folks it is a big deal!  You are in a freaking Ironman race!  If you start out 20 meters in front of the starting line and you get out of the water 10 meters in front of someone in your division - yeah - you suck!  Follow the rules people - this is not a hippie race/free for all.  Swim support was given a job to do and that was to help enforce the rules the athletes signed a line and said they would follow.  Some guy swimming for his warm up way past the starting line (where he was not supposed to be warming up) was heading back toward the start  I was doing my job near the start line yelling at athletes to get back and inside the start lines.  when this swimmer is heading my way out of nowhere... I tried to quickly maneuver out of his way ... and I yelled at him to watch out.  He was in the thick of the Kayakers and he hits the side of my paddleboard with his head and goes under me flailing.  when he gets his head up he looks at me and holds up his hand in a gesture that says "  $%#@, lady, what the %^&#$"  He actually didn't say a word.  I yelled at him "Duude -sorry I tried tell you..."  I'm sure he blames me for any lack of success he may have encountered. 

I hear the announcer say "Remember athletes - the only thing you have control over today is your attitude..."
Then the race starts.  The weather is perfect there is only a slight breeze on the water and the swimmers are off...
The Ironman is a tough race.  One of the toughest events in the world.  The athletes swim 2.2 miles then get on their bikes and ride over 100 miles and then finish the race running a marathon.  I feel like I am in Pretty good shape - but I have never done any of these things on their own.  doing them back to back takes someone who is more than just "good shape"  it takes amazing strength, endurance and mental prowess.  It really is a test of mental toughness as much as physical skill.  No one should EVER sign up for an Ironman race without knowing first that they are in for one of the toughest days of their life.  They sign a waiver that says they are fully aware they could lose their life doing the Ironman.
Most first time Ironman athletes completely underestimate the difficulty of the swim.  As swim support we are warned that the biggest danger is not drowning - it is the adrenaline rush and panicking that is the most dangerous. A few hundred Yard from the starting line is the BUSIEST place for swim support - not nearly finished when you would think we would be pulling the most swimmers.  Nope it's at the start when their nerves are too dangerous to be able to complete the swim.

The athletes are allowed to hold onto swim support vessels as long as there is no forward motion.  We cannot paddle forward or they are disqualified.

The swimmers are off and the pros are way out in front and going strong and steady.  We are in the thick of the rest of the athletes - many never having done something like this in their life.  Swimmers are all over the place swimming in every direction.  We are correcting courses telling people to turn around and head the other way.  I had stop a few people actually swimming backward and tell them to go forward.  One woman that was swimming back toward the start line and struggling for breath I paddled over to her and asked if she was ok, told her she was going the wrong direction and she was bewildered.  "I don't know what's wrong with me, Swimming is MY event.  I am an amazing swimmer, I should be able to do this, what's wrong with me?"
Me: is this your first Ironman?
Her: yes.
Me: are you nervous?
Her: VERY! (and she laughs)
Me:  Your biggest danger is your fear, you need to calm down.  you have 2 more miles.  do you think you can continue for 2 more miles of this?
Her: yes I can
Me: I will be watching you.
Her: Ok, thanks
She takes some time holding onto my board to catch her breath, calm down and collect herself...and she heads off.

Then the wind slammed us!

 I am watching these swimmers really struggle as the wind picks up and produces swells one after another 4-5 feet high.  This is not the ocean, it's worse.  Waves in the ocean give you a break between them.  We were experiencing wind around 40 miles per hour.
Someone asked me if it would have been a benefit to have the wind pushing the swimmers forward and it must have been nice for them having the wind at their back as they swam that first leg.  The problem was they could not see the next swell coming their way over their heads as they gasped for air.  They also couldn't see in front of them to know where they were going. They were gulping water and struggling for breath.  So no, it was not easy.  This quickly become a dangerous situation that no one saw coming.
Boats were rocking and in danger of being capsized and we paddlers were being pushed around.

The paddlers were struggling as well as we fought the wind pushing us around and sometimes away from swimmers calling for help.  It took serious arm strength to paddle in hard to assist a swimmer.

 I felt a little nervous but I could handle this.  I am a strong paddler   I am a crappy swimmer though. I think that's what makes me a better paddler.  I am determined to stay on that board.  I have done a sprint triathlon before in a freezing lake in Wyoming where I came in last place off the water.  But I have this weird fear of deep open water I have been conquering and I have no desire to swim.  Staying afloat and strong is a huge priority for me.
This is a wind like nothing we have ever had on this lake.  I have been paddling on this lake often enough to know this was highly unusual.  "Must be the full moon" is the thought that goes through my head.

 As I would paddle in HARD to one swimmer after another checking on their status as they struggled to catch their breath between swells I would have to back paddle HARD to make sure the wind didn't push me forward as they held onto my board.  I was glad I had the strength and endurance to do this physically demanding job.

 I was glad I was able to help 4 swimmers get to a jetski.  I never have pulled that many swimmers out personally from the water.  I was Paddling  hard to maneuver in to assist another swimmer when "WHAM" I was off my board and hit in the head as my board flipped over me and I watched it get tossed away be the wind.  I was pummeled by a big swell.  CRAP!  My PFD (personal flotation device) was on the board not on me and it was gone with the board.  I was in the water with swimmers and now I needed rescued too.  Unlike the Ironman athletes I had NOT trained for any kind of swimming event. Since that one Sprint Triathlon I did in a Freezing Wyoming lake a few years ago.  although I could survive a swim, I am not confident in my swimming abilities.  These Ironmen were struggling, who was I to think I could swim if they were needing help.  I panicked.

  Thoughts raced through my head in seconds:
This event humbled me.  You can be sure next time I do swim support - I will be wearing that bulky ugly vest of mine.
 I was embarrassed that I had fallen off my board.  That was my first emotion.  Very quickly came the next feeling - Panic!  
 It's funny how fast thoughts can go through your head in a manner of seconds...
"I can't believe I was tossed off my board."
"people must think I am a fool"
"Shoot, I suck at swimming."
"I could drown"
"I can't catch my breathe"
all sorts of muddled panicking thoughts
"I can't swim, I can't swim, I can't swim...."
 "CRAP!  I am a lousy swimmer" 

These thoughts were quickly replaced by a calming thought.
"what's the first rule kids?  (I always ask my kids this when they are freaking out) 
I think about Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy and how weird it is that that is the reference I thought of before my first aid and safety training.
"I can swim, I am buoyant, as long as I stay calm and keep my head up, I am good."
I am watching my board fly away in the wind.
"there goes my board... I wonder how much damage it's going to get."
"I hope my husband isn't pissed at my for losing his board."  
I wonder if I 'll be able to find it again.
I see 3 kayaks heading my way to rescue me - one of them is my husband.
"crap - they should be doing their job and rescuing swimmers - not me"

I had already been paddling hard and now I was swimming as hard as I could using all my power to try and get to the closest Kayak to me.  He is struggling against the wind and swells to get to me as well.
I try swimming while holding onto my paddle and someone's wetsuit swim cap they tossed I had picked up in the water.  It's not an effective way to swim and I am wasting my energy pushing through those waves holding that stuff.  The wind and waves are pummeling me.  I have no idea why I didn't let go of the swim cap.  I didn't even think about it for some reason.  That is kind of funny now that I look back.  I was worried about saving a stupid wet suit cap.  weird.
"I could die out here." 
 I don't think that as a panic, I think that as a reality.  I realize the best way to survive this is to stay calm with the knowledge that the reality of death is there if a calm state of mind isn't kept.  The thought that I could die was one that was actually - people in general could die in these conditions if they don't stay calm.  I knew it and I held myself together.

"stay calm, stay afloat."
Right then I regreat not having my life vest as additional flotation in the water. But I am glad to have my wetsuit in this cold water instead of my normal sweats and jacket I would have worn instead.

The kayaker closest to me throws me a PFD - a large foam square.  I grab it and hold on.

I just hope that my husband can forget about me and just do his job helping the swimmers.  One kayak is enough and Bill is not the closest to me.   I yell at my husband off in the distance. "I'M OK!" and I give him a thumbs up.  I knew once I had that floatie - I would be ok. I see him paddle away to assist someone else in the water and I feel a lot better. I am glad he trusts me enough to do what he is supposed to be doing and not trying to take care of me here.  I feel a weird kind of calm.

  I was now just fine.  I think... but maybe not...  not sure.  Still not a good place to be out there.  My rescuer  asks me to pull myself into his Kayak - something I have done numerous times before.  I try over and over but I can't seem to find the strength after all that paddling against the wind and then swimming for my life. my arm strength is spent.  I am again embarrassed because I know I can do this.
 He tells me to just hang onto his kayak while he maneuvers over to another kayaker that had been tossed over by the wind and swells.  It seemed like forever just holding on and pushing against the elements to get to the other kayaker in the water.  
We finally get to the other guy in the water and he is hanging onto his kayak for dear life.  He also can't pull himself back in and is exhausted from all that paddling against the wind.  My rescuer tells me to hang onto this man's kayak with him and see if we can assist each other back in while he paddles back out to help more swimmer, lifeguards and kayakers struggling in the water.   It's all we can do to hang onto each other across the Kayak and help keep each other up.  My arm strength Gone.  My husband kayaks over  in his 2 seater sea kayak and says, "Michelle I need your help. Climb into my kayak.  I need help paddling.  My arms are exhausted and I could use your help."  I  try to maneuver myself.  I can't.  I just can't.  I think about those swimmers and how badly they need our support out there.  "I can't Bill,  I am spent.  My strength is gone"  I feel absolutely guilty and awful that I am useless in the water.  Bill asks me if I will be OK.  "I'll be fine. Just go."
I continue to hang onto the other Kayaker's arm, hoping and praying for my husband that he can do his job and not worry about me.  I am scared more than I have ever been for all those swimmers.  I see kayakers all over getting ssed out of their boats.  I asked the guy (Jon) if he would mind if I prayed.  "please do..."  "Dear God, we, are scared.  Please help those swimmers out there. and also us and the other swim support - please bless us all with safety on this crazy water.  In Jesus name, amen."  "amen."  We decided to let the wind push us back to land while hanging onto each other.  It's a long way back and we are both in the cold water for quite a while.  "Jon" starts heaving over onto my side of the kayak.  His puke landing next to me in the water.  At first I am a little grossed out and then I laugh at the odd humor of it all.   I had been hoping to be hanging out in my swimsuit and relaxing on my board by now.  Instead I have Jon's puke drifting around me in the water as we cling to each other for dear life.  I am actually laughing and telling Jon "let it out my friend" in a sing song voice.  We are cold and exhausted and at the mercy of the wind and waves.

The air was filled with the sound of Kayakers and lifeguards blowing their whistles calling over help.  NEVER have heard that many emergency whistles being blown.  Kayaks were being swamped by swimmers that were panicking.  One kayaker said her vessel had 10 swimmers hanging onto it and she couldn't even paddle.  She was blowing her whistle over and over to try and get help when one swimmer panicked and tried to jump in her kayak with her - capsizing the boat and endangering everyone's lives.
After quite sometime hanging onto each other I finally feel like I have some strength returning to me and I pull myself into the kayak.  But the wind starts tossing me and using my body like a sail.  So I drop back into the water realizing that we are safer if I stay low and out of the wind.   Jon is just trying not to puke again. 

I'm not sure how much time passed before Jon and I drift into shore.  I see several  big boats and loads of kayaks and paddleboards all lining the beach.

We were not the only ones tossed. I am no longer embarrassed. I head to the sheriff's trailer to get warmed up and out of my cold clothes.  Other boaters and kayakers are there sharing their stories.  All of us are looking at the water and nervous about those swimmers.  We realize that the majority of swim support is no longer on the water.
This means that those 1700 swimmer (give or take) covering 2 miles of a tough swim only have a few kayaks a few jet skis and a few boats.  It's not good and there is NOTHING those of us on shore can do.  So we had a prayer.  There was a group of us in the trailer that decided to say a prayer that there would be no loss of life - a real possibility in these conditions. We asked God to watch over the swimmers for us since we no longer could.
There were tears shed by several swim support volunteers whose hearts were still on the water.  (I'll admit - I was one of the tear shedders).

I looked around the crowd of stranded swim support and we started sharing stories.

More similar stories are shared. We are hanging out by the south beach ramp and boats are bringing swimmers in by the dozens.  I have never witnessed anything like this before.  The swimmers are waiting to get on buses to take them back to the transition.  I see the woman that held onto my craft at the start.  I go over and hug her.  She gives me a big smile "I guess I wasn't ready for this after all."  I point to the crowd and say "me too!"  we laugh a little together.  Then I overhear some athletes say "THEY SHOULD CANCEL THIS!  THIS IS AWFUL!  NO ONE CAN SWIM IN THIS!"  He's angry and yelling.  So many athletes are being hauled away in buses - This has never happened.  400 athletes are pulled from the water - some of their own choice and some had no choice but were asked to get out.  Some are angry, some are grateful.  Some are just too exhausted to feel anything for now.

So many different emotions from all the athletes.  again the words of the announcer at the start come to mind. "remember the only thing you have any control over today is your attitude."  So true.

I look for my husband among the stranded paddlers, I can't find him anywhere.  I see really experienced kayakers that have been tumbled to shore.  But I don't see Bill anywhere or his kayak.  I realize my husband is one of a handful of kayaks left on the water.  I know his physical strength and his determined spirit is keeping him out there - not letting the wind beat him.

I  workout hard every day between bootcamp, weights, running and teaching fitness classes sometimes 4 in a day.  I have strength and stamina.   I am no wimp. But I am embarrassed that I couldn't do what I said I could do.  I am disappointed in myself for not doing what I said I would do.  I feel like I let people down that were counting on me to do what I said I could do.
I wonder if this is a little of what a Disqualified Ironman athlete feels?

I see 3 paddlers coming in - Walt a Professional boater/kayaker, Mike Caifa the leader of the whole Kayak support crew and amazing kayaking professional with loads of experience on the water, and then I see Bill.  I run to him and hug and kiss him.  I am impressed.  Out of 60 kayakers and paddlers I saw only 3 return safely to shore in their kayak after the race was over.  I find out later that 5 Kayakers of the 60 on the water were able to paddle through that wind storm and stay with those swimmers - Those paddlers are IRONMEN!

Bill share his story with me: He is a strong kayaker and a powerful man that loves to outdo the next guy in push up and pull up contests. On a normal Friday and Saturday afternoon you will find Bill paddling hard on this same water, testing his skill in speed as tries to beat his previous time circling the entire lake twice a week as a minimum.  He is used to a good hard paddling event. But the exhaustion of the day and pushing against this storm was too much.   After struggling with all his strength against that wind he came over to me and Ken holding onto that kayak in the water and asked me to climb in and help him out but I couldn't. After I told him to go do his job, he paddled back into that wind to do whatever he could.  He remembered a story in the  Scriptures that talked about a prophet of God that prayed for strength and was given the strength he needed.  So Bill prayed out loud to his Father in Heaven asking to be given strength knowing that he would be given what he was needed. With his Heavenly Father's help he was able to push against that wind in his monstrous Kayak while about 50 other Kayakers couldn't, some with many more years of experience on white water.

Approximately 1700 swimmers hit the water, 400 were pulled and 1300 made it around and swam the entire 2 miles in rough water.  wow! 

There were hundreds of prayers given that day.

I have since heard that it was a miracle no one died in that water.  That is true.  God watched over us and protected us that day.  BUT we also had some GREAT people working that risked their lives and did all they could to tow people out of the water that needed rescue.  Many of those GREAT people humbled themselves enough to ask for God to assist them and the others on the water.  Many boaters, divers and lifeguards did an amazing job pulling out a RECORD number of people in a tough windstorm I believe they/we did it with God's help - whether or not they all know it.

a Few days after the event another female kayaker and good friend (another Michelle) and I shared some time together to clear the guilt we felt for not being on that water til the end.  As we talked things through we realized that between the 2 of us we had saved a minimum of 10 lives.  I needed to remember that so that I no longer felt guilty for not being able to stay on my board and stay out there with everyone in need.

So the question: Why didn't they cancel the swim portion of the Ironman?

My personal view:
 This is the freaking Ironman.  Many of these athletes have traveled the globe to test their skill.  Many are used to swimming in the ocean and have trained in difficult waters.  Over 1000 swimmers made it through that swim.  What do you tell those  people that accomplished this.  Plus - how do you just cancel after the swim has started without having more chaos?   The weather was great when we started.  The swimmers are in the water and the support on top of the water in the way of the wind is having more difficulty than the swimmers are.  If you cancel the swim - you still have swimmers out there bobbing up and down waiting for rescue with very little support and they all have to make it back.  If they can swim it- they should swim it!

I hate swimming.
But I plan on open water swimming more this year and practicing pulling myself up in the water.
It scares the poop out of me.  (poop is Utah/Mormon slang for other words I could use there.) 
Would I do it again?  Absolutely!

Round 2!
After the swim....
Bill and I went home and took a LOOOOOONG nap. Then we prepped for a night at running aid station number one - next to the finish line.  we gathered up the kids, packed some food, blankets and water and headed out the door for our final round of Ironman volunteering.  I've never done this with all 5 of my kids.  We are signed up for 6-midnight.  Let's see if this works.

Awesome.  I love the excitement!  I see familiar faces from the water and found out that the Ironman officials allowed the hundreds pulled from the water to continue the race without their race chips. They will be able to cross the finish line but will not qualify for any awards.  I thought that was cool.

My kids, my husband and I were handing out water, coke, and wet sponges to runners as they jogged past.  The cutest thing was watching my 4 year old so eager to help holding the "Perform" cups (a drink kind of like Gatorade) and yelling out to the runners to take a drink.  Of course he's adorable - He's 4.  Runners would stop and take a drink from him and smile and tell him thanks.  He was beaming.  Later on that night he told me he wanted to go run too.  So I took his hand and we jogged about a block away.  I pretended that a sign on the road was the finish line and He and I cheered until he saw more runners go past us.  It was about 10:00pm so the runners were few and far between by now.  But my little boy was angry at me.  "That's not the real finish line! I want to run to the REAL finish line."
LOL!  I love that he was inspired by these athletes to want to cross a finish line.  So we start again.  I grab his hand and we run alongside another Ironman athlete that laughs as he says "I just got beat by a kid and his mom"  he was smiling, we were smiling.  We ran as close as we could to the finish line before we swerved off to the side and went to the stands to watch the other runners come in.  It was awesome!  All that cheering, all that emotion, all that relief and sweat and tears and laughter.  Man, I love this stuff.  I think I am a junkie.
Ferrell says "MOM, IT'S TOO LOUD! LET'S GO BACK!"


Throughout the run portion I have people telling me "Hi - wow, your everywhere."  Bill comes up to me and and says he almost gave a woman a pat on the butt til he realized it wasn't me.  People all over the place I have never met are saying HI like I should know them.  apparently there is another 30 something woman out there with bleached blonde hair and a pink faux hawk, wearing silver earrings, no make-up, and athletic build.  her name is Jamie.  we find each other.  I have a new facebook Buddy.  I recognize her from the running circuit as a woman that has kicked my butt in another race at some point.  and I remember thinking I liked her hair.  But it wasn't pink then.

Another friend running the Ironman stops by the aid station for some chicken broth and coke or something -  Ben Ford.  We start talking about the swim portion.  He wonders what the big deal was.  he was just fine.  Sure it was tough but not that bad and he did just fine and finished strong in the water.

Another runner comes by -I don't know him but he recognizes me from swim support and thanks me for being on the water that morning.  I walk with him a little way and we talk about the craziness of the water. He tells me someone died.  I feel sick to my stomache.  I am not surprised if that happened but I am angry that I couldn't have stopped that.  I tell my husband and he calls Mike Caifa and verifies that that was actually just a rumor.  All the athletes were accounted for.  some were missing for a while - just didn't check in when pulled from the water.  But they tracked everyone down and there were No lives lost on the water.  I count it as a miracle and the sickness in my stomache goes away.  I wish I could run after the other athlete and tell him.  But He is long gone by then.

My 14 year old son is all smiles as he works next to a cute girl handing out water.

My buddies show up with DRUMS!  YAY!  African drumming starts going and I can't sit still.  the party get started again.  The sun is down, the air is cooling and runners are exhausted.  then they hear the drum the Sanderson's brought and they start dancing past our aid station.  I dance with a few of them.  It's a party again.

11:30 - the last runner goes by but they have another 3 miles to go to the finish.  we are done.  I have kids asleep on the ground with pillows and blankets.

We get home after midnight.  What an amazing party.  I may not be one of the elite athletes doing the race.  But I most certainly enjoyed the day and am physically and emotionally exhausted when it it all over.  Today (Sunday) the day after - I can hardly talk and my elbow and legs are very sore.  But I am inspired, excited and motivated by the skill and determination I saw during Ironman.  What a day!


  1. Replies
    1. aw thanks Cherie. What part of the race did you work at again?

    2. Nice to hear the other side of the story (i was one of the swimmer :)! Thank you for being out there for us!

  2. Wow I just read all that, that's the most I've read in forever, lol

  3. As one of the swimmers I want to thank you for being out there. I really appreciate your prayers, really. It was pretty lonely out there, I would occasionally see another swimmer but that was it.

    1. Paul, we gave it our best, brother. So very, very glad that you made it.
      - Bill

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for being willing to be out there to help us that day. My husband has more crazy water experience from being in force recon in the marine Corp and he said that wAs in the top three of his craziest water experiences ever. It was my first ironman and I am not a strong swimmer but after that second turn there was not a boaT/kayak in site and I remember thinking, after getting tossed by a wave and inhaling a load of water 'dont panic, if you panic, you're going to die today' and I just started praying for a calm mind and kept swimming. Was able to stay on course and finish the swim, slow but alive and within the cutoff.
    The only thing I would say is this... If that water had been like that at 7 am, IRONMAN Would have canceled the swim. They've done it several times bEfore because it's not worth the potential loss of life. They just did it this year at IRONMAN New Zealand because the water was unsafe. Made it a duathlon. They canceled the swim at last years ITU world championships because it was too cold it was unsafe.
    The only reason it wasn't canceled was because it was glass at 7a, what a world of difference 10 minutes makes!!! And it was too late to call people back and there weren't enough boats to go and start picking everybody up.
    Thanks for all that you and your husband did and for praying for us because I know I needed it! Maybe we'll see you at the 70.3
    Even though we've never met we shared an experience that no one will ever understand except for those of us who were out there. I got choked up while I was reading your blog because it brought back some of the emotions I felt while I wAs out there. I was scared for my life.

    1. ChrissieAnn,
      Your insight really puts the events of the morning in sharp focus. That was pure hell on the lake. "No one will ever understand except for those of us who were out there." Exactly. We all had some guardian angels on our 6 that day. See you at 70.3!
      - Bill

  5. Thanks for being there! I spoke to you in the trailer. You are an amazing person, I am so sorry that things were so rough! This day turned out to be an amazing one for many people, and we could not have done it without you folks! I am alive because of your willingness to help and take this on... Wow!!

  6. Thanks for all of your support and sharing your experience with all of us. I was in the water as one of the Ironmen that finished, it was quite an experience. Fortunately, I had been swimming Sand Hollow for 3 weeks and had experienced bad weather so I knew what to do and kept on swimming.

    1. I grew up swimming in the Pacific and love to hit Sand Hollow with a kayak and paddle when the chop's thick and the wind is stiff. Not everyone gets to have that kind of experience, and I never, NEVER have had to endure it for over two hours. I usually quit after 20-30 minutes. That was not a luxury to be had a few days ago. You can't train in a pool for Ironman open water, and even the best training is tested with on-the-job practicum. We all had a test, and thankfully, everyone passed!
      - Bill

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your side of the story. While I was swimming, I think I was more worried for the kayakers. I work with mike caifa in the ER and new how hard his day was turning out to be. I kept visualizing a thin girl kayaker I saw at the start of the race and wondering how any of you could've kept your vessels upright. I remembered she didn't have a vest on too. I was so scared for all of the volunteers on swim support. You risked your lives for all of us to fulfill our selfish dream of the ironman title. You all are heroes. Thank you for being there that day and hauling in a few of our friends.

  8. I had a few friend competing in IMSG this year, and although they weren't able to complete it (they are all previous ironmen), I'm glad to know that there was someone like you (and all your buddies) taking it seriously to keep everyone safe. Thank you.

  9. Thanks for your support and for sharing your story. That was my first open water swim and I feel very blessed to have been able to make it. Before reading your post I never once had thought what it must have felt like to be a volunteer and not being able to help due to the conditions. Your post shed much insight into what it must have been like as a volunteer. Thanks so much for your prayers and help.

    Kevin Brown

  10. Thanks for the report. I was a swimmer and a local athlete. They made the right call to keep the swim going. Having been in a similar situation in 2002 at Utah IM at Utah lake when the cancelled the swim after 15 minutes after the start. It confused many of the swimmers and they did not know what to do or which way to go. Saturday although caotic there were still the majority who were heading in the right direction who could take care of themselves while the swimmers who needed help could be given without trying to tell someone to turn into shore. My hats off to all of you out there keeping watch and prayers.

    1. Anony Mous,
      The thought of Utah Lake happening down here haunted me as the morning unfolded. One teaspoon of water in the lungs can kill a person... What a blessing that no one perished, and I agree with you that IM brass made the proper call to let it continue. Thanks for your comment!
      - Bill

    2. An LA Tri Club member drowned in similar conditions at 2002 Utah IM...it was a miracle history didn't repeat itself at St. George.

  11. Thank you for supporting us during the swim through those insane conditions. You risked your life to save ours. It's something that a lot of athletes take for granted, at least until faced with an experience like this.

    Thanks for volunteering at the aid stations too! I remember seeing you helping (unless perhaps it was your doppelgänger)! :)

    1. Thank YOU for your thoughtfulness. See you next time I hope!

  12. Michele,
    First let me say THANK YOU! As a frequent participant in Endurance events, I know how much it means to have great volunteers such as yourself.

    Second, as a Wilderness First Responder, your story was terrifying. I empathize with you and the feelings you had when you could not help those you were there to watch over. It is always a very serious situation when the conditions are so bad that the rescuers become potential victims.

    That said, in January, a company called Lo Drag Inc. launched a swim safety device for open water swimmers , the Swim It (www.myswimit.com). It's a small pouch which is attached by velcro around the right leg. In the event of an emergency, the athlete or rescuer can pull the small red tab and a life jacket inflates and floats to the surface next to them. The jacket is bright yellow so it not only keeps the person afloat, it alerts rescuers that there is a problem. The Swim It is approved by both USAT and Ironman and can be worn in races. We know of at least one St. George Ironman who was wearing the Swim It and did finish the race.

    The Swim It does not aid or hinder the swimmer in any way. Most actually say they don't even know it's there. But the nice thing is that it is there if they need it.
    The Swim It gives peace of mind to open water athletes.....they know in an emergency, they have a pdf with them.

    There is also a group of USAT lifeguards in St. Louis (www.backyard-lifeguards.com) who use the Swim It when they guard at events.

    Thank you for sharing your story......I hope to see you out there at an event soon,
    Amanda McIntosh

    1. Thank you. I will look into those swimit things. that would be awesome for me. I do yoga on my paddle board and a life vest is impossible. But I also want to start open water swimming and am so freaking nervous about starting. That sounds like something that would give me some peace of mind in the water. :) shame on you and your shameless product plug! LOL! sounds great!

    2. I couldn't help myself Michele. I actually began using the Swim It because I had such anxiety in the water. I immediately became passionate about the product because of how much it helped me. Once it launched I began working for the company because I knew just how much it could help people.

    3. Amanda, you wild and wooly sales rep! Do you do wholesale orders or are you direct to consumer? Seems like a great product. Email me at bill@digpaddlesports.com. Just opened a kayak/SUP rental shop in Hurricane. Still working on website, but definitely open for business, even though we closed for a completelty hairy Ironman.
      - Bill

  13. Thank you so much for being out there with us! Knowing there were folks such as yourself out there watching over us is truly a relief.

    Saturday's swim conditions were by far the worst in which I've competed. But, I didn't panic and just kept pressing ahead. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it round the course in time and was shuttled back to shore via boat.

    To answer your question from this snippet:

    I am embarrassed that I couldn't do what I said I could do. I am disappointed in myself for not doing what I said I would do.
    I wonder if this is a little of what a Disqualified Ironman athlete feels?

    In my case, yeah...

    Not finishing the swim (or event) wasn't even a consideration. So, I'll just have to let these feelings go and press on.

    Again, thanks for being out there for us. You were (and are) greatly appreciated.


    1. Bil, you are the man, and you probably swam the equivalent of 4 miles + in that crazy wind!
      - Bill

  14. Very exciting and inspiring. Michelle, you have so much going for you:concern for others, strength, courage, and a faith in God. Glad you learned from this...that's what life is for

    1. People tell me I am a lot like my mother that way. ;) I love you and thank you for teaching me to be strong and faithful. Your example has saved me so many times.

  15. Conditions were excellent at the beginning of the race. I spoke with a man at the end of the day who was convinced that Ironman officials were deficient in not calling the event off immediately when the wind whipped the lake into a boiling smackdown. I can promise you that people would have died had that occurred. Obviously, several hundreds (and the vast majority) of swimmers were capable of dealing with the unexpected conditions. When a swimmer is actively engaged in his/her own preservation, they are much more likely to survive. If suddenly 1700 people were bobbing up and down in roiling waves and waiting for a water bus to haul them aboard, it would have taken much longer to get swimmers to safety and it would have made rescue efforts ridiculously precarious.
    Kayakers and SUP-ers had it far worse than the swimmers, as we had the waves AND the relentless wind to contend with. There were at least five of us on the water for the duration of the race. Five. Out of 60. I had my eye and bow on three swimmers at the tail end of the race. Timini from Cache Valley, UT, and Frank from San Diego were both strong swimmers that could not overcome the time deficiencies that 40 mph wind gusts and 20 mph sustained winds dealt them, but they gave it their all until the whistle blew and they were hoisted out of the water, unable to continue the contest. The waves were 3'-5' with a wavelength of about 15'. It was one trough after another to crawl through. Tough for many swimmers, nearly impossible for most kayaks on the water that day.
    It's now three days past the event, and I'm still punching through waves in my SOT sea kayak, water washing over the bow and cockpit. I'm still watching my courageous wife being thrown off one of the most stable and proven boards in our rental fleet. I'm still watching the support boats load up with spent swimmers, risking floundering with the weight and storm conditions. I'm still casting my eyes around and seeing empty kayaks fly to the southern shore without pilots, and other kayakers unable to navigate their vessels into such a stiff wind, being flung toward the beach against their wills.
    I'm watching my wife float away, as she supports a violently seasick paddler who is now completely useless, and know that they will both be fine as I continue on for as long as I can against one gnarly, cranky, snaggle-toothed old bitch of a headwind. I'm still surfing - yeah, surfing back to shore in the middle of a desert lake - when it's all over and realizing that almost every single paddler in the lineup from that morning was literally blown away from their positions and unable to carry on.
    The support boats are still leaping up and down on the swells and desperately trying to make sure no one is without the watchful eyes of their dedicated captains and crew.
    It's a miracle no one was lost, and I have no problem saying that I prayed aloud that I'd be able to carry on. I was trashed after trying to stay on course after 20 minutes of that wind. The tandem craft I was paddling solo is designed for rough water, but it's a heavy beast of a barge. I'm certain that I had a wellspring of strength that came as an answer to prayers - both my own and those of perhaps hundreds of others that were there that morning of hell on the water.
    Michelle, I'm proud of you for having the huevos (figuratively, of course) to put this out there for others to read and share, and I'm proud of your efforts to get out and serve others selflessly. You are a great example and mother to our kids.
    Oh, and to Teresa, from Brentwood, CA - Great job, and there is no shame in withdrawing from those incredible conditions! Hit it next time around for the 70.3!
    Glad I got that out. Maybe now I can get back to work! Love you Michelle!
    - Bill Ennis

    1. Hi Bill - Thanks so much for being there for all the swimmers and also for your support and encouragement. Those were some seriously terrifying conditions! I do have unfinished business at SG, so I may have to return next year. :) -Theresa

    2. Thank you for trusting me enough to concentrate on your job in that water and not on me and knowing I would be fine. it means the world to me. I love you! can't wait to paddle some more!

  16. Wow. Thank you, Michelle and Bill, for your detailed accounts, and for taking the time to write them. Rarely do water safety professionals get such insight into the volunteer experience. What you have shared can be hugely beneficial to our industry. I hope every race director everywhere reads your post and the comments.

    Your account reveals a deep dedication to athlete safety and your obvious commitment to your task. Professionals need you on the course. In addition to skilled surveillance, recognition, and response for which certified lifeguards are primarily responsible, so many other tasks are carried out by volunteers assigned to watercraft. Things like lining and maintaining proper width of the swim course, chasing down athletes that veer out of the swimming path, spotting athletes demonstrating signs and symptoms of distress, and providing additional places to rest on the course are all important activities that cannot be performed by lifeguards alone, or when a lifeguard’s first obligation is to watch the swimmers.

    I am struck by two things. First, few athletes are aware that the US Lifesaving Association, the leading authority on open water safety, has compiled six pages of safety guidelines for open water events. Of this complete document, only two guidelines have been adopted by USAT and/or WTC. One is that a race must have one certified lifeguard for every 50 participants in a non-surf environment. An event with 1700 registered athletes requires a MINIMUM of 34 certified lifeguards. It seems this was not met, which constitutes a violation of the sanctioning agreement. The USLA also recommends that lifeguards be trained in supervising the body of water type and experienced in managing the conditions expected on race day, and that additional lifeguards be added as situations demand. I further believe that they should all operate under the same training curriculum and leadership, so that safety services are coordinated and comprehensive. It seems clear from your description that the lifeguards were inadequate, both in number and experience.

    Any volunteer support—and there should be plenty—should be IN ADDITION to the lifeguard requirement. Volunteers are not lifeguard substitutes, and a race organizer cannot claim that safety requirements are met by paddlers, however many happen to be present. The fact that you both take your jobs so seriously is commendable, and clearly a great source of personal pride and fulfillment for you. But you never should have been put in a position to not succeed in your role, or feeling afraid and embarrassed. The weight of your responsibility was far too heavy.

    Second, I am struck by the education that so many swimmers got in the face of such humbling circumstances. The fact that no one died is an absolute miracle. Last year in the US alone, 18 people died in triathlon swims, in far less brutal conditions. Water is bigger than all of us. It is inherently dangerous and can change without warning. Overconfidence in one’s own strength and skill is a liability to a swimmer’s safety. Too many rely on sheer will while disregarding trained safety personnel. Rules matter. They ensure safety and order and ultimately, athlete satisfaction and confidence in the event organization and leadership.

    The proliferation of triathlon and Ironman events and the growing number of participants demand professional water safety. Race directors must consult and include those with swim expertise. I hope to see more thorough athlete orientations, as well as penalties for swimming outside the warm-up area and other activities that disrupt order and supervision. I think the Swim It that Amanda mentioned is as important as the bicycle helmet, and that a few teenaged lifeguards from the local pool does not come close to satisfying the minimum safety requirement.

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! Because of your candid report, people will not easily brush off this or any other event. It is a warning to all athletes, organizers, lifeguards, and volunteers.

    1. Stephe, thank you for adding another dimension to the conversation. I'll point out that many of those on the kayak team and boat support are members of WCSAR and/or professional first responders or medical professionals, or are trained lifeguards that love paddling. We had perhaps a dozen or more lifeguards on rescue boards, but the true number of trained personnel was much higher than that. I believe they were covered from a purely numeric standpoint.

      That conditions deteriorated so rapidly and with such ferocity is something that I'm wondering how to train for. How does someone train for 20-40 mph winds with 5' waves and chop?

  17. God bless you for your work on the water. I was one of the swimmers out there and I had to say a prayer of my own as well. I don't know how I managed to finish the swim course, but I did.

    I remember you from the running aid station and I remember thanking you for being so positive out there on the run. You volunteers were amazing. Thanks so much for posting this. It is really hard to explain to people how awful those swim conditions really were. =o)

    1. Greg - Congratulations!!! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!! :) you will never forget this day! I hope to see you again. i will be doing swim support again for the 70.3. Hope to see you there!

  18. I was hanging on to your husband's kayak when you got tossed...glad to hear you made it out ok. Thanks to both of you for being there for the swimmers.

    1. I am glad you are safe. I am glad he could take care of you and not me right then. I hope you get back out and do the 70.3 next year. We will be there for you! That was a tough day. I hope you are dealing ok with everything. I had to get some emotional healing done to function again. LOL! seriously. I've never had to get emotional healing done before for a race event a swim support (or for anything for that matter)

  19. Thank you Bill and Michelle!

    Your story is amazing!

    I am an Ironman! I can only say that today because of the willingness and generosity of people like you. If it weren't for the amazing volunteers that day I would not be in the euphoric state I'm in today. I am also a very weak swimmer or so I thought. Luckily I trained all winter in the cold Pacific ocean so a few waves were no big deal. Again so I thought. The experience that day was nothing I've ever experienced in the 9 months of ocean swim training. I saw and heard the panic around me. At that point, I knew there were going to be far more troubled swimmers than support to help them . I bore down on my swim and dug deep into prayer. I missed the official cutoff but was allowed thru an extension to carry-on. I finished in 15 hrs. but not of my own doing but the support from the Ironman staff, all the incredible volunteers, and the inspiration of my fellow competitors.

    Thank you!

    1. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!! Hope to see you again next time!

  20. I was in the water last Saturday. Thank you so much for everything you did. As a retired Search and Rescue team member, I know exactly how it feels to want to help so badly but not being able to because of fate, weather, darkness, time or so many other factors us mere mortals have no control over. Remember, you helped those you could, and didn't add to the problem when things went to crappola. Kudos.

    Though I didn't notice you on the run (I was kinda zoned out by then) the encouragement from the volunteers and crowd was amazing! The volunteers at St. George are awesome!

    Thank you. Thank you! Thank you!!


    1. Thank you for your insight Polly. It's good to know my feelings were normal. Good job on your ironman event!


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