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Friday, February 14, 2014

Missing Swimmer Found In The Midmar Dam

The body of Herman "Thabo" van Straten was finally found in the Midmar Dam several days after he disappeared during the 2014 aQuellé Midmar Mile last Saturday. Officials found his body 800 meters from the start of the race in the middle of the course.

Van Straten had started in the third heat on Saturday, the first day of the annual open water swimming extravaganza. Van Straten had started in the same heat that I swam in. Just a few hours earlier, the first two heats of the aQuellé Midmar Mile offered extremely tranquil conditions that surprised and pleased many newcomers and veterans of the event.

But between the second and third heat, the winds picked up. Although no whitecaps were generated, the surface chop made the event a real rough water challenge. At the start, Martin Godfry, a veteran of 40 Midmar Miles, gave detailed instructions to the swimmers: what to look for, what to expect and what to do in case of an emergency or simply if you got tired along the way.

Under sunny skies, I stood on the shoreline with 550 other swimmers including Van Straten, listening to the pre-race instructions. There was the typical energy in the air before any competitive race and after the first two heats, people were excited to start,” described Steven Munatones. “Swimmers were smiling and anxious to see what they could do and swim among old friends. I didn’t want to get in the mix with the top swimmers, so I went to the back of the starting line with the younger swimmers and took my time to swim across the lake.

As I swam casually among the hundreds of boys and men, I could see swimmers all around me including the most competitive who sprinted ahead far ahead. There were swimmers to my left and right, way in front of me and far behind. It was easier to sight off the other swimmers around me rather than the buoys along the course especially because of the surface chop. In the midst of the swim, I passed dozens of lifeguards and the South African navy personnel
.”

But tragedy was about to strike the heat.

Van Straten, a veteran of the Midmar Mile, never made it to the finish. Somewhere either in the first half of the race or around the midpoint, something happened to the 43-year-old CEO. Even with all the swimmers and safety personnel throughout the course, Van Straten somehow sunk quietly, suddenly, and without warning.

It was the second time in the 41 years of the event that such a tragedy occurred.

In the first two heats, there were swimmers who could not make the swim and were helped by paddle boarders and boaters that line the course,” described Munatones. “I was on a boat that picked up one of these swimmers and brought him to shore.” But the physically fit businessman from Johannesburg was neither observed going under by any swimmers around him nor by the safety personnel among and along the straight-line, point-to-point course. Unfortunately, his body remained out of sight for days somewhere in the comfortably warm water, similar to the situation with Nico Mellet in 2011.

While the water quality is good, there is limited clarity in the reservoir. Beyond one or two meters below the surface, it is impossible to really see anything which the South African rescue divers know well. The South African Navy provides divers who man the course throughout the aQuellé Midmar Mile, but down in the depths, they are blind for all practical purposes.

Van Straten, who had completed the race before (34:48 in 2013), was reportedly comfortable in the open water and participated in the event with his company employees this year. Similar to Mellet's unexpected tragedy in 2011, it was a sad shock to all how physically robust and experienced athletes like the Johannesburg pair could die silently and unseen in a race that had an unblemished record of safety for nearly four decades.

The unfortunate tragedies are a reminder of the inherent and ever-present risks involved in open water swimming. If these tragedies can happen to normally fit and experienced open water swimmers, no one is practically immune to the threat.

From International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmers Dave Parcells in Florida to Fran Crippen in Dubai, those who pass away in the open water swimming competitions are always very sad reminders of these risks and the responsibilities of the safety personnel in the races.

The tragedies are also a wake-up call to review and assess the safety protocols, procedures and policies in every swim. Race directors and Safety Officers, especially with large races or events that are spread over great distances, are always presented with difficult challenges:

1. How best - or practical is it - to conduct a race where there can be eyes on every swimmer at every moment of the race?
2. How to rescue - or prevent - a swimmer who sinks below the surface in water that lacks the clarity of tropical seas?
3. What technologies – like sonar – can be implemented by the sport so tragedies that befell Van Straten and Mellet can be avoided?
4. When a tragedy occurs, what are the proper protocols? Should the race postponed, changed or cancelled?
5. Should races be limited in size? If so, what number is proper?
6. Can race directors around the world get together and share information to improve protocols that can help the entire sport and its collective safety practices?

Swimming offshore in the open water is nothing like swimming in a pool. When a person slips under the surface in an open body of water, there are literally seconds before problems or death can occur. While GPS technologies have their limitations and are unsuitable for identifying swimmers who go under the surface of the water, there are promising sonar technologies that may be further developed for the sport. Perhaps sonar safety can provide safety personnel a greater chance for a quick rescue in these unexpected emergencies?

FOX 10 News - Phoenix, AZ | KSAZ-TV

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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