Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatic Safety Expert
In a large 50-meter swimming pool, an expert swimmer in the military drowned while “dolphining” for extended periods of time. He worked out strenuously on the surface prior to his underwater exercises, so it is likely that he depleted his oxygen and carbon dioxide stores prior to his underwater swims. This was a classic Shallow Water Blackout scenario, where a good swimmer overexerts themself in the water and then holds their breath for long periods of time repetitively underwater.
Dolphining is an underwater kicking exercise where the swimmer, wearing fins, will swim many underwater lengths while performing an up and down dolphin kick. During dolphining, the expert swimmer fell unconscious and the lifeguards on duty missed recognizing him underwater, which is not difficult to do. When someone quietly slips beneath the surface, the water hides and suffocates its victims. In addition, lifeguards tend not to watch these underwater swimmers because they are such superior swimmers, often stronger swimmers than the lifeguards on duty. Lifeguards likewise wrongly believe good swimmers do not drown.
In this case the family of the deceased blamed the lifeguards for their inattentiveness. Conversely, the defendants blamed the underwater swimmer because he should have known competitive and repetitive underwater swimming is dangerous and deadly.
Lessons Learned: ALL swimming pools MUST ban extreme underwater swimming and prolonged breath-holding. Lifeguards must be trained to enforce this vitally important rule.
Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatic Safety Expert with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.