I sit here, some 2 days after one of the most terrifying experiences in a triathlon, of my life.
70.3 Durban – returning to this incredible event as defending champion.
I was excited to be back, ready to toe the line and in some pretty descent form. I enjoy the sea and in most circumstances, the turbulent waters and tough conditions play in my favour. This time was anything but that.
I spent a couple of days running along the beautiful promenade, cycling the smooth, resurfaced M4 highway and body surfing the warm, placid waters of Durban surf.
Saturday morning arrived and the conditions had deteriorated a tad… bumpy seas and a couple of rip currents. The official swim practice was called off for pre-race. I went in nevertheless as it was bumpy but still safe and I enjoyed the splash, convinced that conditions would settle for the race the following day.
Raceday arrived. I looked out the hotel window and noticed the big breakers. Sjoe, this was going to be challenging I thought.
As we got closer to the start, we git news that the swim was cancelled for the age groupers. Fine, safety first, I thought.
I regard myself as a fairly strong swimmer and I am pretty proficient and confident in my ability to handle myself in an ocean swim. What happened next was almost too terrifying for words.
5min prior to the start, I asked the organiser whether we were allowed to run along the beach to choose a more appropriate entry point… his words: “No, you must follow the lifeguards into the sea, they will direct you” They were standing in a straight line perpendicular to us, in ankle deep water…
Just prior to this, I went and asked the lifeguard which way the rip was pulling and what the currents were doing out there as I could see it was flushing left. His words to me: “I am sorry, I don’t know as I haven’t been in that far…” What? You are the rescue crew and you haven’t even had the guts to go in there?
The next warning sign… the organiser mentions to us that he is only able to set one buoy at the start and another at the exit point, some 1.5km down the coast, as the conditions were too rough and the buoys would not stay. So, the sea was too rough to put buoys out, but it was okay to send athletes out there?
The horn sounded and we were off. Not into rough water, it was enormous. At one point it seemed as if we were all staying as close to eachother as possible in small groups so as to feel safer. We got split up and rumbled under the churning white water as we pushed our way through. Once we were out, we noticed we had been pushed about 100m to the left of the marker buoy. Now a 100m swim against the strong rip current was the next obstacle. Once I rounded this, I headed down the coast towards the exit. I breath to the left and the closer we got to the exit, the larger the swell got. I would feel the swell lift below me and it felt like you were looking over the ocean from the top of a 3 storey building… I now began to gather my thoughts to stay calm and positive, as the exit was always going to be tricky. I tried to time it by waiting for the sets to settle, but the waves just kept coming….
I kept trying to sight the exit buoy… It just never came. I glimpsed the occasional rescue boat drifting about 50m ahead. I shouted to the lifeguards requesting the position of the buoy, but they just shook their heads. “Head for shore, just get out of here & head for safety” they shouted to me. I was convinced the swim was cancelled, it was now about survival.
Oh my hat, okay, just stay calm and pray… I did pray, all I wanted was to hug my wife and my boys on Father’s Day.
I swam hard for shore and out of the corner of my eye I spotted the first wall of white water. When I refer to wall, I mean 3m high wall of rumbling mass of breaking sea water. It broke over me and pulled me under. It holds you down, rolling you in all directions in a dark mass of powerful energy. To put it into perspective – I felt like an ant getting flushed down a toilet…
When this happened for the third consecutive time I knew I was in trouble. I tried to stay calm and go under the breaking waves, but it pulled too far below the surface and I was unable to escape the vacuum below the wave. I gasped for air every time. I raised my arms and screamed for help.
Out of nowhere a jetski appeared… he was flying and I could see the panic in his eyes. The lifeguards were now in a situation where they were unable to help/rescue the athletes. I had one shot to grab hold of the handle behind his ski before he took off to get out of the way of the next breaker. It cut my hand, but I held on for dear life as he dragged me away from danger and closer to shore.
I was in a state of shock when I splashed my way through the shallows and out of the sea, I was completely exhausted and had that jetski not arrived, might not be sitting here to tell you the story.
It was a matter of life and death, I wanted to survive.
I have no urge to tell the rest of the story of how the race unfolded. I enjoyed the beautiful bike course and was chuffed to have got the fastest run split on the day.
I crossed the line in 2nd place, but was immediately informed that I was disqualified for having received assistance during the swim. Fair enough. In hindsight, as I assess that swim and the conditions, it was a life or death situation and that jetski saved my life, of that I am sure. Would I have taken the jetski again knowing what I know now? Absolutely. Life is way too important to me.
We as professionals rely on the decisions of race organisers who have our best interests and safety at heart, I am not convinced that this past weekend was so…we were expected to swim in conditions which could ultimately have ended in us losing our lives. Praise God we didn’t.