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U.S. triathlon deaths halved after three-year spike

Fatalities in U.S. triathlon events have dropped by half in the past three years, following a troubling three-season spike, according to a continuing examination by ESPN.

From 2014 to 2016, culling information from public records and media reports, ESPN documented 17 deaths in U.S. events, including 12 during or as the result of an incident in the swim leg. Two participants died in bike crashes, one collapsed while riding and two more suffered cardiac arrest during the running leg.

Between 2011 and 2013, ESPN documented 34 fatalities, including 28 in the swim leg. There were 13 swim deaths in the 2012 season alone.

In the 10-year span from 2007 through 2016, there were 79 deaths in U.S. triathlons, 63 in the swim leg, according to the database. There is no official, centralized clearinghouse for information on triathlon fatalities.

Most events in the United States are sanctioned by USA Triathlon, the sport's national governing body, which reviews logistical and safety plans before making insurance available to race organizers.

"We are pleased to see a material decrease in the number of fatalities over the past three years, yet the goal will always remain zero," USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach said in an emailed statement. "To that end, USA Triathlon will continually strive to raise the consciousness of our athletes and race directors through a 'shared responsibilities' doctrine.

"Through close self-examination, we continue to re-evaluate what USA Triathlon can do to minimize risk. This includes working alongside race directors and the medical community to explore, and ultimately address, the potential causes of fatal incidents."

The federation has hosted a multisport medical conference and cooperated with a study by Dr. Kevin Harris of the Minneapolis Heart Institute that analyzed triathlon fatalities over a 30-year period. The institute also studied cases in which participants were successfully revived.

More recently, USA Triathlon launched a "Check Yourself" awareness campaign featuring NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, who began competing in triathlons several years ago for cross-training. The digital video and print campaign emphasizes heart-health screenings and exams by a physician, commonsense tips for open-water swimming, and how to recognize potentially dangerous symptoms. Sanctioning standards are being reinforced through race director education and staff contact, according to USAT event services director Kathy Matejka.

At least three wrongful-death lawsuits filed by families of participants who died in triathlon swims between 2008 and 2012 have been settled or dismissed. A case against the organizers of a 2010 triathlon in Philadelphia, filed by Michele Valentino after the drowning death of her husband, Derek, has wound its way through several appeals and was rejected in a split vote by the full Pennsylvania Superior Court in November 2016. The state Supreme Court has been asked to review that ruling. USA Triathlon is not a defendant in that case.

At issue in the Valentino case -- and most others involving triathlon injuries or fatalities -- is the standard waiver signed by endurance event participants, which states that organizers cannot be held liable. A smaller panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court had ruled that the waiver could not bind Valentino's widow. Most similar wrongful-death cases have hinged on the waiver provisions, which are viewed by most legal experts as extremely difficult to overcome.