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Youghal Ironman participants describe ‘chaos’ in swimming event

Too many people in the water during the event, according to athletes taking part in competition

Footage shows swimmers entering heavy seas as part of the Youghal Ironman event on Sunday. Image: Lisa Shine

A number of participants in Ironman Ireland in Youghal have highlighted the “utter chaos” they experienced in the water during the swimming stage of the event last Sunday.

Two men, Brendan Wall (45) and Ivan Chittenden (64), died while taking part in the race’s swimming section. Athletes taking part said there were too many people in the water during the event, after the Saturday race was postponed to Sunday with confusion over mid-race route changes.

“Conditions were horrendous,” said Annabelle who took part in the half-Ironman race and wanted to be identified by her first name only. As the thousands of participants queued up to begin the race, she said, “you could see people looking around at each other”.

Waiting to acclimatise

Professional athletes were the first people to get into the water. Annabelle said she could see “even the pros were struggling. Usually, before a race you get into the water to acclimatise to it and get back out again before the race. Because there were thousands of participants, we could not do that,” she said.

Eyewitness footage has captured swimmers entering heavy seas as part of the Youghal Ironman event, in which two participants later drowned. Video: As credited

“My plan was to get into the water and wait to acclimatise, but the waves were too strong, so we had to just get going.”

According to a number of participants who spoke to The Irish Times, route changes began after the participants had already begun the swimming course. This led to confusion among those still waiting on the shore as well as the athletes in the water — “as we started the race, we did not know where we had to go. They kept taking out and moving buoys,” said Annabelle.

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According to the swimmers, the first section of the course was the part about which they were concerned. The planned route of the course was meant for the athletes to swim up and around a buoy against the current of the water.

“It was the first part of the course that was difficult and dangerous, once you got around the buoy it was fine,” said Annabelle, “I wouldn’t even call it a swim, it was horrendous. I was shocked and panicked. The waves were so high I couldn’t even see the buoy to turn. When I arrived at the buoy, because of the current I just couldn’t turn, and people were starting to accumulate in the water in that area.

“What happens then is people start swimming on your legs, and swimming on top of you. I got elbowed, I got kicked in the chest and there is nothing you can do. If you don’t keep moving, you are putting yourself at risk.”

Large group stranded

From the shore, one local, David Quinn, said that he could see how strong the current was in the water. “I could see even the [safety staff] kayakers were struggling to get out through the waves”, he said, adding that once out on the course they seemed to find it difficult to stay in place.

Throughout the race, as participants were being redirected to the new and shorter course, the safety staff in kayaks were busy redirecting the swimmers back on to the course.

This left a large group of those swimming stranded and congregating around a secondary buoy on the new course.

“There were way too many people in the water,” said another experienced swimmer, Pádraig Harrington, “there were people crashing around you left, right and centre”.

“It was impossible, at least in my opinion, for the safety people to do what they have to do.” He heard of another swimmer who found themselves temporarily caught under a buoy as the swim progressed. “In hindsight [I have] pretty strong feeling it shouldn’t have happened.”

Sticking to lake swims

He said his experience at the event in Youghal would make him “think twice” about taking part in another sea-based Ironman in the future, and stick to those with lake swims.

Another participant, Sinéad, who also wished to be identified only by her first name, said she was an experienced triathlete who was “used to the sea”. She said she knew the conditions would be tricky and was confident in her own ability – however, she recalls observing at the time that “people are really going to struggle” in the conditions.

The combination of a “really strong current” as well as “very big, very powerful waves” left other participants panicking in the water. There were “loads” of kayakers in the water to help the athletes, she said, but said they were difficult to see at times.

“In the end, you have to trust the organisers. I thought if it was really dangerous, they would cancel the event,” reflected Annabelle. “Obviously it is a shock and I feel guilt from taking part.”