Just how does a young, healthy, competitive water polo athlete drown in a swimming pool?
The family of 19-year-old Nick Johnson — and many in the Santa Barbara community — have been struggling to understand his tragic death, and attention is now being focused on a condition called "shallow water blackout," which puts swimmers and divers in danger of fainting underwater.
Johnson was training alone at the Santa Barbara High School pool on March 24, although the school’s swim team was doing laps at the same time.
He was discovered unresponsive at the bottom of the pool’s deep end, and despite heroic efforts by students with lifeguard training, responding paramedics and emergency room doctors, he couldn’t be revived.
The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office has issued a preliminary finding of “accidental drowning” but is waiting on toxicology reports and other tests to make a final determination of the cause of death.
Wolf Wigo coached Johnson since he was a child, both on club teams and eventually on the UCSB men’s water polo team.
He told Noozhawk he believes a shallow water blackout contributed to Johnson’s death, noting that people at the pool saw him swimming underwater laps.
“I’m pretty certain that’s what it was,” Wigo said. “If it’s not, it’s not, but for me, it’s way over a 90 percent chance.”
Wigo is working with his father, Bruce Wigo, to launch a nationwide awareness campaign about shallow water blackout. Families of victims, including the Johnsons, will probably get involved, he said.
“It does seem that this is an opportunity to try and make changes in the way these elite athletes train, so that no other family will have to endure such a loss,” said Kristen Jensen, Johnson’s aunt.
This cause is personal to Wigo, not just because of his relationship with the Johnson family, but because he almost suffered a shallow water blackout as a child in the backyard pool.
Bruce Wigo, the former executive director of USA Water Polo and CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, has written several articles on the subject, including one about his son’s near drowning.
Wolf was doing a contest for underwater distance swimming with other kids, and before taking off, he was doing deep breaths and then would laugh.
He had accidentally made himself super-hyperventilated. Wigo then heard the other kids yell that Wolf was pretending to drown, but when they got to him, they realized something was wrong.
“He was blue, convulsed with eyes wide open and not breathing when I got him out of the water,” Bruce Wigo wrote.
Wolf was lucky and fully recovered, but the incident showed just how quickly victims get into danger in shallow water blackout.
It’s an inherent risk of underwater swimming and free diving, where people hold their breath for extended periods of time, especially if people hyperventilate beforehand, said Don Barthelmess, who teaches in Santa Barbara City College’s Marine Technology Training Department.
“It’s not really common in pool situations; it’s more common with free divers in a competitive situation, where they’re basically hyperextending breath-hold dives to stay underwater for longer periods of time,” Barthelmess said.
Taking long, deep, rapid breath inhalations lowers the carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, which allows the person more time underwater before the level rises to the “break point” and he or she feels the need to breathe.
That urge is triggered by the elevation of carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream, Barthelmess said.
Lower carbon dioxide can make the body ignore that trigger, but the blackout itself is caused by a lack of oxygen. For free divers, it’s the falling oxygen pressure as the person surfaces.
There’s more atmospheric pressure underwater, which falls as someone nears the surface. There’s twice as much pressure on the body at 33-feet underwater as there is from air on the surface.
“I’ve actually had it happen with students, probably four times with marine technology students,” Barthelmess said. “They hyperventilate even when told not to, to allow them to swim more distance underwater.”
As they surface, the partial pressure of oxygen falls very rapidly, and the person becomes hypoxic: deprived of enough oxygen.
“They get dizzy and the world starts to spin and they can actually pass out,” he said. “In the few occasions I’ve had this happen, I’m in the water with them and we have to get the diver up to the surface, face up, and they start breathing when they get to the surface.”
Divers will sometimes do what he called “the samba” — convulse for 10 to 15 seconds, with an ashen-gray face, before they start breathing again.
Students have to do an underwater swim test at Los Banos Pool, and Barthelmess said he has saved several students from shallow water blackout there, too.
Some students try to do the 50-meter pool on one breath — despite warnings — and instructors walk alongside them because of the concerns of blacking out.
“I’ve had to jump in the water on three occasions over 25 years to basically pick students up off the bottom. They’re swimming along and just stop,” he said. “I haven’t had to do CPR, but I’ve had the living daylights scared out of me enough times.”
A quick response is critical because swimmers or divers who black out below the surface can drown from inhaling water. Brain cells die quickly without oxygen, he noted.
Some cities and aquatic clubs have put up signs warning swimmers about the dangers of swimming underwater, hyperventilating before a swim and other activities that increase the risk of shallow water blackout, but it’s a very patchwork effort.
The Wigos want to do a national information and signage campaign so it’s not just targeting areas that had a high-profile death from this condition.
The East Coast was badly shaken by the death of Louis Lowenthal, a 14-year-old swimmer with the prestigious North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 2012, which was attributed to shallow water blackout.
However, no one in California even heard about it, Wigo said.
“It would be great to have the awareness locally, but it doesn’t really do much because people all over the country don’t know about it,” he said. “It could be for synchronized swimming, water polo, swimming, diving, free diving, anyone playing in the pool and anyone who wants to swim as many laps as they can underwater. We want to get this into the hands of as many coaches as possible.”
Beyond information and signage, Wigo wants poolside emergency equipment to have defibrillators and oxygen on every pool deck, and dedicated lifeguards at all workouts.
“We’re working with swim coaches and associations that really have the power and the reach to get out information as much as possible,” Wigo said.
The Wigos are also getting in touch with Bob Bowman, head coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where Lowenthal was a member, to try and join forces.
Since Lowenthal’s death, Bowman has been giving lectures on shallow water blackout at coaching conferences and calls it the most important information he can give them.
Wigo’s water polo training doesn’t include underwater laps so the issue of shallow water blackout isn’t a constant reminder to athletes or families.
“Mine was such a long time ago that it slowly wears off. It’s a shame — there should be a sign on every pool,” he said.
To reduce the risk, free divers and swimmers should never train alone and never hyperventilate before going underwater, since it increases the risk of shallow water blackout, he said.
Good free divers actually relax and lower their heart rates before they dive, so they can conserve oxygen and last longer underwater, Barthelmess said.
“If someone like me isn’t making a big deal of it every year — hey, be careful, don’t do that — then people push themselves and this happens to people who try to train as hard as they can or get the gold,” Wigo said. “Someone like Nick, that’s the person it affects — people trying to push themselves.”