Swimmer Blackouts: More Common Than You Think

Commentary by Shoshanna Rutemiller

TEMPE, Arizona, October 10. IT was a tragic, unexpected event. A year ago today, one of my close friends died in an accidental drowning at the Arizona State Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex. He was 22 years old and an excellent swimmer. More specifically, he was an excellent collegiate swimmer, having swum at both the University of Wyoming and Arizona State.

The news came early on a Monday morning. James Rigg, along with another former collegiate swimmer, climbed a tree to gain unauthorized entry into Mona Plummer after consuming alcohol earlier in the night. It happened in the gray area between late Sunday night and early Monday morning. At the time, sneaking into the complex wasn't an unusual occurrence and the two jumped into the deep diving well.

The Tempe Fire Department arrived at the scene around three in the morning, after receiving a call from his friend that James was unconscious and unresponsive.

An autopsy was done and the cause of death was ruled as “accidental drowning.” But people began to question: how could a collegiate swimmer, who was renowned for his underwater skills (before swimming his 100 butterfly at meets, the coaches always made sure to reinforce the need for him to kick ALL the way to the 15-meter mark underwater … and he did) accidentally drown? In breath-holding competitions during practice, James would sit at the bottom of the pool well past the three-minute mark, while I gasped to the surface after 45 seconds. Obviously consuming alcohol was out of the question prior to practice.

Then I remembered one event in particular: we were in the middle of a challenging progressive breath control set that combined sprint freestyle and underwater kick. It was my worst nightmare, considering I was one of the people that usually failed first (and I had almost ZERO chance of success with my heart rate above 120). But on these sets, James thrived. He was just one of those kids that could suppress the normal human survival instinct triggered by a build-up of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

But something was wrong on this set. After a 75-meter sprint kick underwater, James hit the wall, popped up to the surface of the water and immediately sank back under. Fortunately, our coach noticed within a split second, grabbed him, and pulled him back to the surface.

My mind went back to that practice as the Arizona State team crowded into the little “Devil Room” at Mona Plummer to honor the life of James. Did he intentionally sink down in the diving well late in the night a year ago, peacefully holding his breath while looking at the rippled night sky?

Perhaps James had learned to suppress the natural tightening of the throat and lungs and pounding in the head associated with the CO2 build-up. Swimmers train daily to silence the little voice in their heads telling them to break the water's surface. James was no different. To be able to extend 15 meters underwater after every turn, every day in practice, he had to push his body and mind to their oxygen-depleted limit.

So by the time his body was signaling him for oxygen at the bottom of the diving well, the signal had become a natural occurrence. We'll never know if the alcohol had an influence, but at this time, suppressing the desire to breathe meant falling into unconsciousness, and, eventually, drowning. Although the actual specific cause of James' death is still in question, I wonder if the whole incident started out as an enjoyable game.

The following video discusses the dangers of “shallow water blackout,” produced after the mother of an ocean diver found her son on the bottom of her backyard pool:

Drowning is still one of the leading causes of accidental death. As in James' case, experienced swimmers should be aware of the dangers of shallow water blackout. Most often, it occurs after periods of hyperventilation, when a swimmer breathes at a deeper or more rapid rate, or during breath-holding exercises.

According to the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal, 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. 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 are ever-present.

Coaches should keep a close eye on swimmers as they complete repeats of breathing-related sets. James was lucky the first time he lost consciousness in the pool, but the second time it happened, the world lost a wonderful young man.

Contact the author of this story at ShoshannaR@swimmingworld.com
or through Twitter @SJRutemiller