A few months after the tragic drowning death of UCSB water polo athlete Nick Johnson, the Santa Barbara aquatics community is working to raise awareness of the little-known condition attributed for his death: shallow water blackout.
The Santa Barbara High School Aquatics Booster Club hosted a presentation about aquatic safety and shallow water blackout prevention Tuesday night with money from the memorial fund created in Johnson’s name.
Local coaches, aquatics club managers and lifeguards discussed the dangers of long breath-holding and prolonged underwater swimming.
Johnson died in the Santa Barbara High School pool on March 24 when he was training alone, although the school’s swim team was doing laps at the same time.
He was 19 years old and an emerging force on the UCSB team, where he worked with his longtime club coach, Wolf Wigo.
Shallow water blackout happens when someone is holding his breath long enough to pass out in the water. Hyperventilating beforehand greatly increases the risks, according to experts.
Rising carbon-dioxide levels cause the urge to breathe, but hyperventilating delays that urge. If oxygen levels get low enough, the body passes out underwater.
Johnson was found unresponsive at the bottom of the pool and couldn’t be revived.
His father, Berkeley ‘Augie’ Johnson, attended Tuesday’s educational talk by Gareth Hedges, an attorney and risk consultant who deals with aquatic safety. Hedges works for the North Carolina-based Redwoods Group, which does consulting work with many YMCA facilities.
There are about 3,500 reported drowning deaths in the United States every year, but no one tracks shallow water blackout deaths, Hedges said.
At facilities his organization monitors, there have been 13 incidents since 2008, including two fatalities.
Many of the cases had people doing breath-holding contests, swimming long distances underwater without taking a breath, or doing repeated sets without stopping between them.
“For a healthy swimmer in a swimming pool, this is the highest risk,” Hedges said.
He shared stories about Curtis, the triathlete, former Marine and father of three who did intense workouts that ended with sets of underwater swimming for 25, 35 and then 50 meters.
At that number, several people in the audience inhaled sharply – they knew those kinds of stories didn’t usually end well.
Another person in the pool noticed Curtis at the bottom of the pool, and it wasn’t until he got pulled out by a fellow swimmer that the lifeguard knew anything was wrong, Hedges said.
Even with use of an automated external defibrillator, he passed away.
It can be hard for lifeguards to notice people on the bottom on the pool, even if they’re looking for it, Hedges said. Strong swimmers like Curtis are considered low-risk and there’s no warning – or noise – if they pass out underwater, he added.
The importance of this education is clear, but the messaging is fragmented or nonexistent in most poolside or aquatic sports settings.
Wigo, who is trying to launch a national education campaign on the topic, suggests having signage banning these risky behaviors and putting defibrillators and oxygen on every pool deck. Hedges had the same recommendations and added that every workout should have a lifeguard, not just a coach.
There are no industry standards for breath-holding or underwater swimming rules, and the policies change from pool to pool, if they even have them at all.
Of the 25 or so people at Tuesday’s meeting, only two said they have signage at their facilities related to breath-holding or underwater swimming.
One of those is the city of Santa Barbara, and aquatics head Rich Hanna said the city is implementing some specific rules as a starting point: prohibiting swimming underwater for more than 15 meters and breath-holding for more than 5 seconds for the general swimming times.
“It’s our first stab at it,” Hanna said.
Other people said they have had pushback from pool users who want to practice breath-holding, saying they need to get better at it for SCUBA, underwater hockey or other sports.
Coaches and aquatics program supervisors want ideas for educating swimmers about the risks versus the supposed benefits of activities that might require some breath-holding.
Specific rules would be helpful, such as how many seconds to stay on the surface between snorkeling dives, a State Parks lifeguard said.
Hedges suggested that pools prohibit long breath-holding and underwater swimming for all general swimming sessions, and work on more specific guidelines for competitive swim teams, synchronized swimming teams and other groups.
Wigo thinks some standards and messaging need to come from top organizations including USA Swimming. Rules could change to require certifications and trainings on shallow water blackout before groups can use a pool facility, he said.
The lessons really need to hit home so people realize swimmers have died – better swimmers than them – because of these risks, Wigo said.
Local coaches brainstormed a few ideas for prevention, such as mandating a buddy system with lane mates during swim practices, and will keep the conversation going in coming months.
The basics to educate swimmers come down to this, Hedges said:
» Never swim alone.
» Don’t attempt long underwater swims.
» Don’t hyperventilate.
» Don’t resist the urge to breathe.
» Don’t do breath-holding competitions for time or distance.