In every possible way, this weekend was not what it should have been. It should have been a Saturday of out-of-town athletes traveling to the area and checking out the course, local folks enjoying the restful Saturday and maybe one last workout before the big race Sunday. It should have been filled with the buzz of race day, the nerves of first-timers, and the spirit of competition.
It was not what it should have been.
Saturday afternoon, I got to Lake Wedington around 2:45 to meet a few friends and swim the course already mapped out for the Ozark Valley Triathlon the next day. Most of us swim in a pool and don’t get much time in the open water other than race days, so I was looking forward to some lake time. As I got to the entry gate to the recreational area, I could see emergency vehicles everywhere and the woman in the gatehouse asked me to wait, warning me, “there’s been an emergency, you may not be able to get in the water right away.” She eventually waved me in and I reached for my phone to call my friends down at the water. I saw I’d just missed Jennifer’s call.
I texted, “Everything okay?”
The reply – “No. Someone drowned.”
I met our group down at the water and everyone was just sitting. Staring. Barely talking. It had just happened. And one of the girls in our group had been in the water near the man when he panicked and went under. She had tried to help him, but couldn’t. There were no lifeguards or kayaks.
There were police. Search boats. An ambulance. By this time, the man had been underwater around 45 minutes.
I stayed at the water for the next two hours. After texting Jeff and a few friends I thought might see the news and worry about me, I just sat. Waited for news. Talked with Jennifer and a handful of fellow athletes. It was unbelievable.
What little conversation we had wandered…
…do you think he was even here for the triathlon?
…didn’t the race email say there’d be lifeguards out here?
…is his family here? Oh my gosh, his wife? Kids!?
…panic in the water is so real. And scary. And can happen to anyone.
As we sat, we saw a handful of athletes arrive for the same reason we’d been there in the first place. They went into the water and swam what they could of the course. I remember thinking, “there is a man MISSING in that water. There is a SEARCH going on not 100 yards away.” I couldn’t fathom getting into that water until something was resolved — and maybe not even then.
At one point, someone affiliated with the race came over to our group. She told us there were no plans to cancel the race the next day. That “it wouldn’t change anything”. And as I watched her pull on a swim cap and head to the water to swim herself, I was stunned.
The image I couldn’t get out of my mind was of a football team. Opposing teams, even. Kneeling, praying, showing respect when a fellow player is hurt on the field. The game stops. Nothing can move forward until there is some sort of resolution. They would never dream of carrying on while a fellow competitor is in trouble.
This wasn’t like that.
Yes, there were people worrying, waiting, watching, and being respectful. But I watched as just as many people carried on business as usual — swimming the course, chatting about the race, even speculating about whether this man “had any business being out there.” Though it would be several hours before the body of the missing swimmer would be recovered from the lake Saturday night, the overall sentiment seemed to be “on with the show”.
I am new enough to the sport to have no idea whether this is protocol. Is this how these things are handled? You could dismiss me altogether as misguided, misinformed, or just plain dramatic — but the individualism of it all really got to me this weekend. Triathlon isn’t a team sport. I get it. But to what end? I’m not implying that the people I saw and talked to simply didn’t care about the man missing, presumed dead in the lake. But what I saw and heard and read about in the news Saturday night — before the man was even found and recovered from the water — was that the event would go on as scheduled. This unthinkable tragedy wasn’t going to interrupt the competition.
I was conflicted about eventually leaving the lake that afternoon. I had to pick up Colt and feed him supper. And I knew it could realistically be days before the body was found in the lake. It didn’t make sense to stay there, not able to help.
I was conflicted about the race. I went to bed Saturday night, obsessively checking the news and my email for updates. I was mad at the race organizers for making me decide whether to show up the next morning. If the race is on and I don’t show up, am I a quitter? If I race anyway, am I just as bad as the things I saw and felt that day? Can I race it and it be about perseverance, and courage, and respect? Or will I question my own motivation? I went to bed undecided, but dreading the moment of truth I would face when my alarm went off in the morning. Ultimately, the race was cancelled. By the U.S. Forest Service.
I was conflicted about writing this, and if you’re reading it you can bet I was conflicted about publishing it. This is a community I care about a great deal. This running, racing, triathlon community has been supportive and nurturing as I’ve discovered these new abilities and passions in myself. This community is full of beginners and professionals — and everyone in between. It is full of people I respect and admire. And that has not changed.
What has changed is how I will approach it.
As we sat by the lake Saturday afternoon, an experienced and seasoned competitor knelt to chat with us for a minute, and what she told us has remained the bright spot in all of this. She shared a story of a woman she heard speak years ago. A woman who had done numerous triathlons, including several Ironmans, and that her goal in every single race was to be last. Last. She wanted to be back there with the runners and athletes who may or may not believe they can finish — talking with them, encouraging them, coaching them to the finish line. This woman cared more about the spirit of team and the satisfaction that comes with just FINISHING than she cared about winning or time goals or competition.
So after wrestling with this for a few days, I realized that while I’ve chosen a sport built on individualism — I am still, absolutely part of a team. A support system. And after spending most of Sunday frantically checking Twitter for Ironman Coeur d’Alene updates for two fellow bloggers/triathletes/women I’ve never even met, and after remembering that I have friends currently nursing injuries and needing my support, and after remembering that I have the opportunity to help and encourage other beginners — after all of that, and in light of the relief I felt upon receiving that race cancellation notice — I still want a spot on that team.
But I will operate as part of that team. I will respect my team. I will appreciate my support system and I will spend time and energy and every last labored breath making sure my team feels that respect and appreciation right back.
Competition, yes. Training and hard work, yes. Sense of accomplishment, yes. But I will not forget why I do this. I will not succeed at the expense of the team.