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Stroke of Tragedy

Consequences were fatal when swim portion of the Ironman Utah triathlon was held despite strong winds, waves

June 20, 2002|LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winds howling at 50 mph were ravaging the shallow lake, generating waves so intense in size and frequency that it was nearly impossible to resist panic.

Swimmers can't panic. It wastes energy, changes breathing patterns, diverts attention.

"I didn't see any boats, I didn't see any buoys and I would estimate the waves were 6-8 feet," Rachel Rudich said of conditions at the inaugural Ironman Utah triathlon June 8. "I realized this was survival mode. The drift, the waves, the current--I don't know all that was going on out there, but it was nothing like anything I had experienced before. It was like wild surf from all directions that never stopped."

Rudich couldn't spot land because of the waves' height. She was taking breaths quickly as water constantly smacked her face. Swimmers she'd encounter would immediately disappear on the other side of the flurry of waves. One man peered into her eyes and confided, "I'm just trying to stay close to you because I'm scared to death."

By the time officials canceled the swimming portion of the event and cleared Utah Lake of the 1,536 participants, John Boland, 55, of Redondo Beach was dead and many others were grateful to be alive.

Right away, the notorious winds that transform Utah Lake near Provo into what locals call "Killer Lake" were whipping chaos across the waters.

Gusts were so strong that nearly every six-foot-tall buoy, anchored by two cinder blocks, had skidded wildly and indistinguishably far from designated positions.

The hundreds positioned at the starting point were confused by a lack of instructions. The uncertainty was so great that as many as half of the entrants began racing before a starting blast was fired.

"It was so dusty on the platform where we were supposed to enter the water that I had to put my swim goggles on to see," said Rudich, a 45-year-old from Claremont attempting her fifth Ironman. "The start was a mess. They were trying to get people in the water, but you could barely hear the PA system because the wind was just so noisy. I was standing on the platform, where it was very crowded, then all of a sudden I heard the gun go off and someone yell, 'Go!' "

The triathletes immediately confronted the stiffest winds possible, headwinds from the northwest. And minutes into the scheduled 2.4-mile race, the athletes were thrashing aimlessly, as far as a quarter-mile south of their assigned--and unmarked--path.

"The waves were coming so suddenly at me that every time I came up to breathe, I had a mouth full of water," said Gilbert Mancilla, 31, of Phoenix. "It wasn't long into the race, only about 500 meters, before I was telling myself, 'This is too much for me.' "

Rudich, trying to remain calm, decided early in the race to switch from freestyle swimming to breaststroke.

Driving his 26-foot open-bow boat as an event volunteer assigned to place the course markers, Utah state senator and 30-year Provo resident Curt Bramble said he made earlier attempts to warn Ironman officials of the high winds' typical effects on the lake.

"At 6 a.m., I asked an official if he was aware that the severe winds had been forecast," Bramble said. "He basically dismissed me. I was told specifically, 'You have no idea about this. These are world-class athletes who are used to six- to eight-foot ocean swells.' "

Said swim captain Rob Durrans: "Those of us who knew the lake knew that race should have never been started, but I had no one to express that to. I was out on the course in a boat with no radio when all the officials were at the starting line. When it started, I had no contact with any of them."

Minutes after the 6:53 a.m. start, Bramble worked to get a better look at the developing chaos as waves broke across his boat's bow.

He saw Mancilla yelling to be saved. He heard others screaming in frustration for accurate directions. He scanned the lake and saw no other boats positioned to assist.

"What I was trying to tell the officials is that there is a lot of difference in the amplitude of swells in a deep ocean to those on a seven-foot-deep lake," Bramble said. "The number of waves is compressed on the lake. This is what I was talking about."

Bramble's inspection of the commotion made his pulse race. He barked words neither of his three passengers--his 19-year-old daughter, Mindy; a race official and an Ironman photographer--could hear because of the screaming winds:

"All hell has broken loose."

Mancilla, a strong bicyclist and runner who said he learned to swim last summer so he could compete in triathlons, was desperate to see Bramble. Mancilla was so fatigued his soaking body had to be tugged aboard.

Bramble returned to the helm and quickly looked to his left.

He saw a body floating face down in the water.

"I pulled the boat close to him, thinking at first that he was either relaxing or had just gone unconscious," Bramble said. "Because of the rough waters, there was no way I could grab him by the wetsuit, though. The body drifted under my boat."

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