Ironman death stuns athletes

Fellow competitor recalls final moments before Murphy faltered in swim

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COEUR d'ALENE - Before the start of Ironman Coeur d'Alene on Sunday, as he stood with more than 2,000 others waiting to plunge into Lake Coeur d'Alene, David Martin met Sean Murphy.

They chatted for a minute and Martin helped the 44-year-old Seattle man zip up his wetsuit in final preparations for their 2.4-mile swim.

"We wished each other the best," the 73-year-old Martin said.

"And then off we went."

Before long, Murphy was pulled from the water, not breathing. CPR on a boat failed to restart his breathing.

He was rushed to an ambulance, and taken to Kootenai Medical Center. There, he remained on life support until he died at 1:07 p.m. Tuesday.

Beth Clemens, chief deputy coroner with the Kootenai County Coroner's Office, said the cause of death is pending an autopsy at Spokane County Medical Examiner's Office.

The death is the first in 10 years of Ironman Coeur d'Alene.

Jessica Weidensall, spokeswoman for event organizer World Triathlon Corp., released a prepared statement Wednesday:

"We are deeply saddened to confirm the death of an athlete following Ironman Coeur d'Alene. The athlete required medical attention during the swim portion of Sunday's race and was transported to Kootenai Medical Center where he was treated until Tuesday. The cause of death is unknown at this time. On behalf of all of us in the triathlon community, we mourn his death and send our condolences to his loved ones."

Martin, from Los Angeles, said he and Murphy started in the back of the pack, waiting for the swarm to get going, "so we wouldn't be run over."

When the first waves of swimmers were gone, the two headed out.

They swam together, Martin estimated, for about 3-4 minutes.

"He wasn't that far from me," he said during a phone interview Wednesday.

At one point, he noticed that Murphy looked like he was struggling. He was bobbing, not swimming, "trying to collect himself," Martin said.

Murphy, though, seemed to find his swimming stroke and continued out in the 57-degree water.

Martin said he lost sight of him, and continued with his race.

But minutes later, maybe a few hundred yards from shore - Martin said he couldn't be sure - a person on a kayak or paddleboard was grabbing Murphy and waving for help. A person on a jet ski arrived quickly, and pulled Murphy from the water.

"I heard them scream out something, I didn't know what it was," Martin said.

He said Murphy was not moving.

Next, a rescue boat "was right there," Martin said.

"They immediately saw he was not breathing," Martin said.

He, too, got into the boat and watched as they removed Murphy's wetsuit and medical crews began CPR as the boat, sirens screaming, it headed to the dock.

Martin said he didn't see what happened to Murphy. But he said it wasn't long after he and Murphy separated that he was pulled from the water.

He credited rescuers with reacting swiftly.

"They did a miraculous job," he said. "They were right there."

He said the response was well organized.

"There wasn't anything more they could do," he said.

Andy Emberton, WTC operations manager, said for Ironman Coeur d'Alene, there were 56 kayaks, 24 paddleboards, seven boats, and nine personal water craft carrying around 125 spotters throughout the two-loop course.

Volunteers and staff are assigned to specific zones and spread out "to give visual and physical coverage to the entire course."

He said USA Triathon rules call for one safety person watching for each 50 swimmers in an Ironman.

Ironman Coeur d'Alene has one for every 20 to 25 - twice what USAT requires.

Emberton said some things are beyond their control.

"You wish you could do more," he said.

The safety of each person in an event when more than 2,000 people are swimming more than two miles, can't be guaranteed.

"It goes with any sort of extreme physical exertion you would put yourself through," he said.

Emberton said WTC will review what happened. Staff will study if anything can be done to improve race day operations.

"We're going to look at everything we do," he said. "We want to make sure we're doing the best job we can."

There have been other deaths during an Ironman swim.

Last year, 46-year-old Mark Wezca, of Lancaster, N.Y., died during the swim of Ironman Louisville in August. Wezca was pulled from the Ohio River just after he started the swimming portion. According to a report by, Wezca's death was "consistent with drowning, complicated by cardiac disease."

In 2006, a Kalispell, Mont. man was found face down in the water during the swim of Ironman Florida. Barney Rice, 35, was on the second leg of the swim in the Gulf of Mexico when he was pulled from the water. He died two days later in a Florida hospital. It was determined he had suffered a heart attack.

Rice's family later filed a federal wrongful death suit against event organizers North American Sports and USA Triathlon. In 2009, A Panama City federal court jury said the organizers of the Ironman were not liable in Rice's death.

Bill Travis of Coeur d'Alene, a veteran of 22 Ironmans, said the swim portion can be dangerous for some. At times, you can be trapped with people all around you.

"When you're in there, sometimes there's no place to go," he said Wednesday.

You can be bumped, hit, elbowed, kicked, sandwiched and run over. It's not uncommon for goggles to be knocked off.

"I know of black eyes and an ear drum ruptured," Travis said. "It is part of the deal with an Ironman swim when the numbers are so high."

"You just get beat up on in the swim," he said.

In addition, the early stages of the swim start can be difficult, Travis said. You've been standing and waiting for the early-morning start, the cold water can take your breath away, and you can get scared and panic.

"Everybody I've seen that has trouble, they get nervous, hyperventilate after a couple hundreds yard, they can't calm down," he said.

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