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Escape From Alcatraz: Javier Gomez wins race marred by death

Javier Gomez and Heather Jackson were the pro winners at the 2013 Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, a race that was marred by a competitor's death during the swim.

Competitors ride a boat to the start of the San Francisco Triathlon At Alcatraz on August 21, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
Competitors ride a boat to the start of the San Francisco Triathlon At Alcatraz on August 21, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
Ezra Shaw

On Sunday, the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon was held in San Francisco, a bit earlier than normal (to accomodate the yacht race America's Cup). The schedule change meant the swim portion was in chilly waters, with temperatures hovering at just 51 degrees. The race is considered one of the more difficult triathlons -- After the 1.5-mile swim, competitors run a half mile to transition, bike 18 miles and then finish with an 8-mile run that includes deep sand and the 400-step Equinox Sand Ladder.

Javier Gomez, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, continued to find success in his non-ITU racing career, winning in a time 2:04:27. Graham O'Grady finished second and Jesse Thomas took third. Pete Jacobs, 2012 Ironman World Champion, came in fourth place (2:08:33).

Heather Jackson overtook fellow American Sarah Goff in the final miles of the run to win the women's side in a time of 2:18:08. Ricarda Lisk of Germany was third. Goff explained some of her troubles post-race:

Unfortunately, the race was not without incident: One of the athletes, identified as 46-year-old Ross Ehilinger of Austin, Texas, died during the swim portion of the race.

Triathlete and lifelong swimmer Jim Street, a veteran fire fighter and a member of Team Firefighter, was at the scene. "The San Francisco Fire Department pulled a swimmer out of the water and were working him on the way in. They worked him on the dock. They worked really hard. Then the RC [Rescue Captain] brought the wife over. That was really hard to watch from this side of a call. His wife crumpled the the sidewalk crying, ‘He said he could do it'. They were unable to revive him, they did everything they could."

Officials believe that Ehilinger "a massive cardiac event" shortly after the start of the race. The death is the first in the 33-year history of the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, but despite the cold temperatures, the race organizers do not believe the frigid water played a factor.

"Was it colder than normal? Yes. But in my opinion, the water temperature was not a factor at all in this tragedy," Bill Burke, the race's director, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The gentleman obviously had a heart condition he was unaware of."

This death comes not long after two deaths in the swim portion of a triathlon in South Africa, and just a bit more than four months after USA Triathlon released a massive study on deaths in the sport, finding 38 fatalities (30 of them swim-related) in a six-year period beginning in 2006.

Early last month, Dan Empfield, publisher of, wrote a long feature titled "How to Exit the Swim Alive," and on Monday, after the Alcatraz death, published another piece, urging race directors and competitors alike to recognize the urgency of triathlon's danger -- and then do something about it.

What angers me is that a family awoke today to the crushing weight that their son, brother, husband, father was alive day before yesterday and is not alive now. I am angry not because there is anything specifically that could have been done to save the live of Ross Ehlinger, of Austin, Texas, who by accounts was in distress shortly after jumping from the ferry into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay yesterday morning.

I'm bothered because if you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting. I do not see any of us doing one thing differently today than we did 26 swim deaths ago, and that takes us back only two years. And that's only in the United States, which means I'm not counting the two who died a few months ago in SpecSavers Ironman 70.3 in South Africa, along with those who've died around the world in the swim leg during a triathlon over the past 2 years.

There are things we can do. I wrote about some of these things. Many of you commented, "Yes, yes, good stuff all." But did any of it change your behavior? Did it Dare You to Move? Has your trajectory been bent in any way? If not, then, that's fine, if you are doing what you need to do to reasonably guard yourself and those in your care against a death in the water. And that probably describes 80 percent of you. But for the other 20 percent of you: any movement yet?