An experienced triathlete who took part in an Ironman event where two people died says “swimmers were being knocked around like skittles” in bad weather conditions.
Alan Walsh told Sky News there are serious questions about safety to be asked – and the swim in Co Cork on Sunday should have been cancelled in the wake of Storm Betty.
Ironman claims this was only communicated to its officials “several hours” after the swim had concluded – but Triathlon Ireland has denied this, and said organisers were warned before the race began.
Mr Walsh said he witnessed “an awful lot of people getting into difficulty”, and it was hard for competitors to see safety boats because of the swell.
During the swim, one man started calling for help and went underwater.
“He was obviously drowning,” Mr Walsh said. “It felt like forever and it was only a second or two, but I went over to him and picked him up over my shoulder.
“I’m just struggling to keep us up and I’m roaring at him to relax and lie back and then a canoeist sees us.”
Mr Walsh said he managed to get the swimmer onto a canoe – and carried on with the race after making sure he was okay.
Once he was out of the water, he saw stewards resuscitating someone on the pier.
“I would say it was 100% the worst conditions I’ve seen a triathlon swim go ahead in,” Mr Walsh told Sky’s Lisa McNally.
The triathlete warned there is a “huge amount of risk” in these races and anything can happen – but at the very least, the swim course should have been altered sooner.
“They changed the route of the swim mid-race – someone was announcing it on loudspeaker,” Mr Walsh said. “How the hell are you meant to hear that if you’re in the water?
“We wear earplugs and I only found out because someone tapped me and told me as I was getting in the water. I would expect these errors from someone organising their first triathlon, but not Ironman.”
The two men who died have been named as Ivan Chittenden and Brendan Wall.
“My heart goes out to their families and I am gutted for them,” Mr Walsh added. “It’s horrific first and foremost – that’s where my mind is, not on any race.”
Mr Chittenden and Mr Wall were pronounced dead at the scene after being removed from the water by emergency services.
Irish police are investigating, and the coroner has been notified.
In a statement, Ironman said it is providing ongoing support to the athletes’ families – adding: “Ironman has extensive and stringent, industry-leading safety guidelines and protocols, honed to the highest international standards, and implemented at events worldwide.”
The company said the weather was monitored carefully throughout the weekend – and an on-swim safety team had decided that water conditions were safe for the race to take place, albeit with a shortened course.