Commentary by Shoshanna Rutemiller
PHOENIX, Arizona, October 11. Nearly a year ago, the swimming community was rocked when 14-year-old Louis Lowenthal, a talented swimmer at the prestigious North Baltimore Aquatic Club, died due to complications from a near-drowning accident. Reports stated that he was unsupervised and apparently spending additional time practicing underwater drills after practice. A lifeguard noticed Lowenthal underwater after an extended period. Lowenthal was pulled out and was rushed to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Much time and energy is spent during the summer months raising awareness about drowning prevention. National media outlets center news segments on the message of “always watch your kids around water.” The USA Swimming Foundation hosts its annual “Make a Splash” tour featuring Olympians Cullen Jones and Rowdy Gaines; an event that provides free swim lessons to low-income communities. Handfuls of local programs urge parents to enroll their children in swim lessons. Although this publicity push effectively stresses the need for children to take at least basic water-safety classes, the program misses the mark at one level: that even elite, fit and highly competitive swimmers are at risk of drowning.
The weather is cooling down; club and high school training intensity is picking up heading into the winter months. It is the perfect time to reinforce to swimmers and coaches that humans are not invincible, especially in the water.
Lowenthal’s tragic death does two things: it reinforces the need for coaches and/or lifeguards to always closely supervise their swimmers around the pool, and, on a broader scale, it raises awareness that even experienced swimmers can lose consciousness underwater.
Some suggest that experienced swimmers may actually be MORE at risk of fainting underwater than less-experienced swimmers. Years of controlling the urge to breathe during breath control sets makes elite swimmers less in-tune with their body’s natural signals of slipping into oxygen deprivation. I have personally seen teammates faint and sink underwater after surfacing during rigorous breath control sets.
This persistence to test limits should not be lauded by coaches, but rather recognized as a serious issue. Athletes approach sport with the mentality of physically and mentally pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities. The draw of sport it witnessing an athlete achieve the seemingly unachievable. But, even so, athletes should ALWAYS be aware of his or her limits.
Swimmers need to be aware of the dangers of shallow water blackout. Most often, shallow water blackout occurs after periods of hyperventilation, when a swimmer breathes at a deeper or more rapid rate, or during breath-holding exercises. The body’s urge to breathe is triggered by rising levels of CO2 in the bloodstream. The practice of hyperventilation artificially lowers the levels of CO2, suppressing the swimmer’s reflex to surface.
Swimmers sometimes practice blowing off C02 before submerging for breath control sets. This practice reduces the body’s natural urge to breathe, allowing a swimmer to say beneath the surface for longer periods of time. And while this practice may seem like a good idea when a swimmer is in the middle of a tough hypoxic set, the dangers of losing consciousness underwater are ever-present.
If we have learned anything from Lowenthal’s death, it is that everyone — even talented athletes — have limits to what their bodies are capable of. Drowning is not something that only happens to inexperienced swimmers. Fainting underwater due to lack of oxygen is a scary thought, but a real occurrence. Coaches need to keep a close eye on swimmers during breath control sets. Push your limits, but push them safely.