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Col. Gene Montague, right, and an unidentified person.
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Col. Gene Montague
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Col. Gene Montague
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Col. Gene Montague and his family.

UPDATE: 

According to an initial investigation report, the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's office was told that Col. Gene Montague died of a heart attack. 

An ER doctor said early indications were that Montague suffered a myocardial infarction during the first leg of the triathlon and could not be revived. 

The Medical Examiner's office declined to take on the investigation because he died of natural causes.

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Almost every weekend, his family said, Col. Gene Montague pushed himself to the brink of exhaustion.

He ran marathons. He jumped through mud obstacle courses. He attended martial arts seminars, training until he became a fifth-degree black belt, said his brother, Rashid Basir.

But more than in any other arena, Basir said, Montague was strong in the water. He traveled to the Caribbean for family vacations several times. He and Basir would jump in the clear water and paddle along the coast. Montague loved how he could feel his muscles strain. He was a certified lifeguard, a certified scuba diver and a first responder.

"He would often go into the ocean with me on vacations and just swim the coastline for miles," Basir said. "He would just go."

But on Sunday, Basir and the rest of Montague's family and friends heard their loved one had died — in the water. He was swimming in the Tennessee River, the first leg of the Ironman Chattanooga 70.3, when he began to struggle early in the event.

A spokesperson for the Ironman said Sunday that emergency workers pulled an athlete from the water and administered CPR on the starting deck near the Girls Preparatory School. The spokesperson did not identify the athlete at the time and was unavailable for comment Monday.

But on Facebook, friends and family members made posts memorializing Montague, 51, as the person who died in the event. They remembered him as a man who could achieve the rare balance of high-level accomplishment and happiness. They posted pictures of him in police uniforms, martial arts uniforms and military fatigues — almost always with a wide smile.

"It's too unreal," Basir told the Times Free Press in a Facebook message Monday. "He was the strongest person in the world."

He said doctors and event organizers gave the family an account of what happened: Montague's heart "gave out" early in the race, and lifeguards worked on him for about an hour but could not resuscitate him.

Montague was 11 years older than Basir and helped raise him in Brooklyn. He became a patrol officer in the same borough before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He served in Afghanistan and Kosovo and had earned the rank of colonel. Most recently, Basir said, he was living in Woodbridge, Va., with Lisette, his wife of 23 years.

On Monday, Basir flew to Chattanooga to help Montague's eldest son, 26-year-old Eugene Montague III, retrieve his car, bicycle and bags of clothes. Montague is also survived by his 20-year-old daughter, Aminah; his 15-year-old son, Ahmad; and his 6-year-old son, Aza.

Montague had been dedicated to martial arts since he first walked into a center in the Flatbush neighborhood in the late '80s or early '90s, his teachers said. Grandmaster Bill McCloud, of the MAUSA Health and Fitness Center, said Montague was intelligent and paid close attention to details as he studied VSK jujitsu, a system that combines throwing, kicking, punching and sweeping.

Grandmaster Anthony Muhammad, of the United Schools of Survival and Self Defense, said Montague was a master rank but also a great connoisseur in the art of fun. He smiled throughout his training. He made his classmates laugh.

"He was a beautiful person," Muhammad said.

Though Muhammad moved from New York to Chicago in 1995, he and Montague saw each other several times every year across the country at martial arts seminars. And while Muhammad's rank was above that of Montague's, he sought out Montague's advice. He was thoughtful.

"He had a great personality," Muhammad said. "He had a great presence. I just don't understand. Him being in the condition I believe him to be in, having this happen?"

The swimming portion of an Ironman event is the most deadly, according to multiple studies. USA Triathlon said that from 2003 to 2011, 31 of 45 people who died in such an event did so because of a "cardiac incident" in the water or immediately after finishing the swim.

Reporters for ESPN's Outside the Lines also looked at the issue in 2013. From 2007 through mid-October 2013, the reporters found, 44 of 52 people who died passed away in the water. The article's conclusion is based on public records, interviews and other media reports throughout the country.

Cardiologist Dr. Kevin Harris also studied the issue and told Scientific American there are several reasons why this might be the case. The swimming portion is the first leg of the event, and the athletes' adrenaline is pumping hard. Often, the athletes competing in triathlons are stronger runners and bikers than they are swimmers — though Basir insists that wasn't the case with his brother.

Also, Harris said, the swimming portion leaves an athlete with no clear "out." On Sunday, for example, the swimmers were in the middle of the Tennessee River. And while volunteers were in boats, looking for anyone who might be struggling, there isn't a clear place for the athletes to stop for help, unlike on the road.

Just a weekend ago, Basir said he didn't have to worry about issues like these. His brother had come back to New York to visit. Like they always did, they sat around and talked about sports, working out, martial arts, the police, philosophy and religion. Basir said his brother was a practicing Catholic but also studied Islam and Judaism.

They also talked about Basir's wedding in August. They were going this Sunday to get fitted for their tuxedos. Montague was going to be his best man.

Before Basir married, the two were planning a "man" trip to the Caribbean. They hadn't decided which specific island they would go to yet, but it didn't matter. This trip would be like their other vacations.

They were going to fish, and they were going to scuba dive, and they were going to swim.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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