Friday, November 18, 2011

Swim Buddy Guidelines

There has recently been some press about deaths occurring during the swim portion of triathlons, with the conclusion that the deaths were due to panic rather than health issues.

I thought I'd share what we do in San Diego to help beginner swimmers and first-time triathletes safely and confidently complete the swim portion of the race: We call our solution "Swim Buddies". Below I've copied some guidelines I gathered over my years spent being a Swim Buddy for just about every local race I wasn't competing in.

After the Guidelines, I'll summarize some of the reasons why I believe Swim Buddies aren't yet a universal part of all triathlons.
Swim Buddy Guidelines
Updated: 18/11/2011

Hello Swim Buddies!

What follows is my traditional Swim Buddy Info Dump: It may look large, but it should be easy reading. If you've seen it before, please read it again: I'm always updating it.

Mission Statement: The primary purpose of a Swim Buddy is simply to prevent a DNF (Did Not Finish) during the swim leg of the race. We do this by helping swimmers to: 1) Control fear, 2) Avoid over-exertion, and 3) Stay on the course.

Pre-Event Preparation:

Prior to race day, please check the following:
  1. You have all your usual swim gear ready (including wetsuit).
    • If you already have any TCSD Swim Buddy caps, please let me know, and please bring it/them with you! It will save the club money.
  2. You know the route to the event.
  3. You know where you are going to park.
  4. You know how to get from the parking area to the meeting location.
  5. You allocate adequate time to arrive at the Swim Buddy meeting on schedule.
Race Day Morning:

PLEASE be sure to check your email before leaving for the event: If there are any late-breaking updates (such as rain or rough conditions canceling the swim), they'll be waiting for you.

At the specified time (about 30 minutes before the first wave), we will gather at the specified location (usually the Volunteer Booth) to check in, collect waivers, and have some snacks.

Next we will meet to go over these Swim Buddy guidelines, to hand out Swim Buddy caps to those needing them, and to answer any questions. The meeting will be held in wetsuits (well, you can get changed while I babble).

Please arrive on-time! Late arrivals (especially first-time Swim Buddies) mean I'll have to repeat everything, and I may not get to swim myself.

Swim Buddy "DOs and DON'Ts":

Just about all of these are common sense, but I prefer to lay them out to ensure we're all approaching things the same way.

  1. Introduce yourself to your swimmer!
  2. Ask about their swim ability and open-water experience.
  3. Check over their equipment (especially look for bad/missing goggles).
  4. Suggest they join TCSD to take advantage of our many FREE coached swim clinics.
  5. Find out which side your swimmer prefers to breathe on, and plan to swim on that side.
  6. Mention that we're all covered in foam rubber, so collisions are expected and are OK.
  7. Describe what will/may happen (surf entry, swim, buoy turn, surf exit, goggle fog, etc.).
  8. If there is a stingray warning, remind your swimmer to shuffle in and out of the water.
  9. Use your swimmer's name frequently. It will have a calming effect.
  10. When the wave starts, walk SLOWLY to the surf, letting the rest of the wave get well ahead, keeping things calm.
  11. Encourage your swimmer to dive under waves and 'grab bottom' when the waves become too high or too strong to walk through.
  12. Encourage your swimmer to swim slowly and steadily.
  13. Stop when your swimmer stops, and help them rest/recover (float, relax).
  14. If your swimmer gets really exhausted, recommend they float on their back. If needed, wave a lifeguard over so the swimmer can rest on the paddleboard.
  15. Spot the buoys for your swimmer, and help them stay on course and out of traffic.
  16. Tell your swimmer they're doing well, and how far along the course they are.
  17. Tell your swimmer when traffic is approaching, and try to protect your swimmer by being very visible to the approaching traffic.
  18. When reaching the exit surf zone, look back to spot the breakers for your swimmer.
  19. Cheer for your swimmer as they head to transition!
  20. Jog back to the Swim Buddy area.

  1. Don't swim away from your swimmer! Stay about 1-2 feet to the side, and slightly ahead.
  2. Don't touch your swimmer, except for nudges to change direction or to get their attention.
  3. Don't be a lifeguard! If a lifeguard is needed, wave your arm over your head to attract their attention.
  4. Don't suggest a swim stroke. Whatever your swimmer chooses will have to do.
  5. Don't be a swim instructor! The swimmer is already busy enough without having to listen to a lesson. However: If your swimmer asks a question, you are free to answer it. Even if they ask for a swim lesson.
Lifeguards and Paddleboards:
  1. A swimmer is permitted to hold on to a paddleboard to rest, but only if the paddleboard does not move the swimmer along the course. Be alert for tides and currents.
  2. If a lifeguard thinks a swimmer should be removed from the course:
    • You are permitted to ask the swimmer if they agree with the lifeguard. It is the swimmer's decision, unless the lifeguard insists.
    • The lifeguard is the final safety authority.
After the Swim Buddy Meeting:

At the end of the meeting we'll stash our gear. We will have at least three locations to choose from: The Registration/Volunteer booth, an expo exhibitor's booth, or near the swim start. The final decision will be made based on how things look in the morning (mainly on who has both space and security).

Next we'll hike to the swim start area. If you want to get in a quick warm-up swim, this will be the time for it. The warm-up area is generally located off and to the side of the swim course.

Pairing up with a Swimmer:

Before each wave starts (except, perhaps, the Pro/Elite waves), the announcer will ask if anyone would like to have a Swim Buddy. If someone raises a hand, walk on over and introduce yourself.

There are three basic types of swimmers who need Swim Buddies:
  1. Inexperienced swimmers (fearful, often with no recent swimming experience).
  2. Unprepared swimmers (pool swimmers lacking open-water practice).
  3. Physically limited (very small or very large, very young or aged).
Determine which kind of swimmer you have! Some swimmers fit in all the above categories.


Quite often, many people (mainly guys) will have no clue before the race starts that they will need a Swim Buddy. For this reason we send one or more 'sweepers' behind most waves.

If you are a sweeper and come up to a slow or struggling swimmer:
  • FIRST ask: “I'm a Swim Buddy: Would you like me to swim with you?”
  • Don't swim silently next to them like a shark, or just assume they will want your help.
  • If they say 'Yes', introduce yourself and get their name.
  • If they say 'No':
    1. Back off.
    2. Keep an eye on them (mainly so the lifeguards don't worry).
    3. Make the same offer to anyone they pass.
    4. If all the swimmers are doing well, and if you want some extra exercise, you can chase down swimmers who have gone off-course.
After Each Wave:

After the pro/elite waves, it can get fairly hectic as we send varying numbers of buddies out with each subsequent wave. It is important to get back to the Swim Buddy area (near the start) as soon as you can after each swim. I recommend jogging back.

If we run out of Swim Buddies for any wave:
  • Shout at any Swim Buddies on their way back from the swim exit to RUN!
  • Ensure there is at least one sweeper for the wave.
  • One Swim Buddy may work with two or more swimmers: If they swim at different speeds, let the faster ones go ahead, and stay with the slowest one.
  • Rough Surf Crew: If the surf is rough, 2-4 Swim Buddies will help swimmers for all waves through the surf entry, then swim the course with the last wave. As Swim Buddies come through the course, they will stay in the surf exit zone for a few waves.
The Last Wave:

It is a tradition for all Swim Buddies to get in the water and escort the very last swimmer to shore. It is optional, but it sure looks good in the event photos! It also lets us finish as a team.

First-Time Swim Buddies:

For you first-timers, all the above may seem a bit overwhelming. DON'T WORRY! There are at least two ways to get into this gradually, sweeping and doubling-up, and I'll describe them in detail during the meeting.

Final Notes:

Questions? Comments? Please contact me!

Again, thank-you VERY much for volunteering to be a Swim Buddy! It means a lot to me and to the event organizers. But it will mean so much more to the swimmers you assist. And I expect it will mean plenty to you as well.
Not at all difficult for an experienced triathlete to do, right? So then why are Swim Buddies not used everywhere?
  1. USAT Regulations: Swim Buddies are considered "assistance" on the course. While this may be true in a very limited technical sense, in a practical sense it is false, and from a safety sense it is an insane policy.
    • Swim Buddies don't touch their swimmers, aside from incidental contact.
    • Swim Buddies don't lead their swimmers, so there's no assistance from drafting.
    • Swim Buddies are with the slowest and least able swimmers: Not a threat to any podium position.
  2. Macho Attitude: Many race organizers believe you shouldn't enter a race unless you are prepared for it. Unfortunately, they rarely do anything to warn or help prepare first-timers, and so are, in my mind, completely culpable for all panic-related deaths, no matter what the event waiver says.
I believe Swim Buddies should be mandatory at all races that do no properly vet the experience of their field, and at all races of Olympic/International distance or less.

What do you think?

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