Athlete dies during Ironman as others gather to honor memory of friend

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 5/22/16. Competitors wait for sunrise to begin the 2016 Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 event in downtown Chattanooga on Sunday, May 22.

Triathletes often seem superhuman. They train for hours at a time and show off their strength and stamina at events such as Sunday's Ironman Chattanooga 70.3, where more than 3,000 athletes competed for everything from top honors to bragging rights.

These athletes competed on a sunny day in the Scenic City and celebrated their accomplishments with family and friends after finishing the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run as spectators cheered. For most, all seemed perfect.

But word quickly spread of the death of an unidentified athlete who struggled early on the swim course. Emergency workers pulled the person from the water and administered CPR on the starting dock, even as other triathletes entered the water to begin their own races.

The athlete was transported to Erlanger but could not be resuscitated, Ellie Seifert, Ironman director of public relations, said in a statement.

"We are deeply saddened to confirm the death of one of our athletes participating in today's IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga triathlon," Seifert said. "Our condolences go out to the athlete's family and friends, whom we will continue to support."

Seifort did not release a name, and several local athletes asked about the incident did not know the person's identity. Ironman typically attracts athletes from across the United States and the world.


Despite the fatality, the day went on as normal for most competitors and their families.

Racers streamed across the finish line on Riverfront Parkway to the cheers of family and friends. Finishers pumped their fists, screamed and one even turned a cartwheel.

But the event was a bit more somber for one group of local athletes who raced in memory of a friend and training partner - even though he may not have been the best athlete they ever knew.

BlueCross BlueShield employee Sam Land was active in the Chattanooga Tri Club and was planning to race Sunday, but he died suddenly on Wednesday. His friends and training partners honored his memory by wearing green wristbands with his name and bib number and writing his name on the backs of their leg. He was not the best athlete in the club, they said, but he was a favorite for his spirit and determination.

"He was supposed to be competing in this race today, and this is in his memory," said Steve Rogers, a friend and training partner. "He had such a personality that was magnetic. He always had a smile on his face and was willing to help people.

"He was just a special person. He was probably the worst triathlete, but he had the biggest heart."

Land's friend Billy Day was responsible for getting the wristbands made and organizing the tribute. Day had his own troubles Sunday, crashing at the end of the bike leg and suffering a separated shoulder, but he finished the 13.1-mile run with his arm in a sling to remember his friend who wasn't there.

"Sam never quit, so I wasn't going to quit," a banged-up Day said after finishing. "He signed up for this race, so we all wanted to make sure we finished it for him."


As with any strenuous activity, triathlons carry an element of risk for participants, but several studies in the past decade have pointed to the swim leg as the most likely to result in health emergencies and fatalities.

A study conducted by USA Triathlon and reported by USA Today found nine of 12 triathlon deaths in the United States in 2011 resulted from cardiac incidents during the swim. Also, 31 of 45 triathlon deaths from 2003-2011 were from cardiac failure during the swim.

A 2001 report on triathlon-related deaths by Minneapolis Heart Institute cardiologist Dr. Kevin Harris found that of 14 deaths from 2006 through 2008, 13 happened during the swim. Swimmers who died were between 28 and 65 years old and 11 were men.

"While at first I was surprised, it does make sense for a number of reasons," Harris said in an interview with Scientific American magazine.

"First, the adrenaline surge and pure number of athletes entering the water at the same time; second the fact that I suspect many athletes come from a background in running or other sports and may be less adept at swimming; third, swimming in a triathlon is a totally different sport than doing some laps in the pool due to variability of extremes of waves [as well as] people swimming around you and on top of you; fourth, the inability to rest properly if needed (or call for help) as you could do in the marathon and bike [segments]; and, fifth, the difficulties in being noticed if the swimmer is in trouble due to the number of athletes in a body of water, which is not transparent."

And despite the numbers, thousands of athletes compete every year with no health issues. Seifert said incidents such as Sunday's death are rare despite the hundreds of Ironman events worldwide involving hundreds of thousands of competitors.

Mike Stacks, training director for the Chattanooga Tri Club, said Sunday proper training is the best thing athletes can do to limit their risk of a health emergency or injury in a triathlon.

"You've got a lot of stuff to deal with," he said. "You've got heat to deal with, the wind to deal with. In the swim people are hitting you. You've got to be prepared for a long day when you come out here.

"You've got to be prepared even if you aren't going to be a world champion. It's not an easy task."