When Great Swimmers Drown

My 10-year-old daughter is a Junior Olympic level synchronized swimmer. She’s been an accomplished swimmer since she was a toddler. So, of all the things I have worried about as her mother, drowning was not one.

But on May 22, 2017, that is exactly what happened.

At a regular synchronized swimming practice at the New Tampa YMCA, she did several laps with very few breaths in a row. She then attempted a 50 meter “zero under,” trying to swim the distance without taking a breath. She says that she felt great, and she remembers seeing the wall before thinking, “I should take a breath, but I’m almost there, I can do it!” And she did do it, but she blacked out before breathing, and sank to the bottom of the pool.

This phenomenon is called “shallow water blackout,” and it occurs often with experienced swimmers during breath-holding exercises or times in which they enter the water after “hyperventilating” (breathing rapidly and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the body to abnormally low levels, which can interfere with the brain’s signals to the body to take a breath). It happens to free divers, to children having breath-holding contests, and, especially, to competitive swimmers in training.

Drowning in general is quiet and much harder to detect than movies and television would have you believe. Victims have no energy for thrashing and screaming. Those who suffer from shallow water blackout are silent, and they don’t even realize what is happening. “I can do it!” they think, riding a wave of euphoria that is, instead, their brain shutting down from lack of oxygen.

Seconds before my daughter dropped to the bottom of the pool, an attentive YMCA lifeguard noticed that my daughter’s legs were moving oddly as she approached the wall at the end of her “under.” As she surfaced and then sank, the lifeguard sprang into action, signalling the three other lifeguards on duty to move into their well-rehearsed emergency procedures. By the time the lifeguard had lifted my daughter to the surface, unconscious and not breathing, another lifeguard was ready to pull her out and begin CPR. Other lifeguards brought the AED, cleared the pool, contacted authorities, and performed other tasks. They worked together efficiently and effectively, and my daughter was breathing, conscious, and able to speak by the time paramedics arrived.

Their actions, completed with confidence and without hesitation, saved my daughter, no question. Research says that shallow water blackout victims only have about 2.5 minutes to be resuscitated before they suffer brain damage or death. My daughter is fine and back in the pool, once again training for the Junior Olympics and prepared to continue her lifelong “straight A student” streak in the fall. I am grateful for the quick-acting lifeguards and for the YMCA’s emphasis on training and safety.

As a parent, getting the news that your child is gravely (and perhaps mortally) injured is life altering. I had no idea what it meant to be truly terrified. I never even realized that I didn’t know what true fear was. The altered consciousness, the limited focus, the way, hours later, I realized that I still couldn’t breathe properly, and that I’d hurt muscles and scraped my feet and never even processed those things because the part of my heart that lives in my daughter was nearly broken beyond repair.

Running out to the pool and finding it silent, with onlookers frozen against the fence while a small group huddled together over a figure that I knew was my child was an experience I’ll never forget, and I surely don’t want to live through again. I learned so many lessons, some of which I’ll share over time, and some of which I’d like to forget and to spare any other person from experiencing. My heart breaks for parents who have had similar experiences, some of which ended tragically. I have peered through the crack into your world and I’m so very, very sorry for your loss. I know now that I cannot truly understand how you feel, some pain far beyond what I could ever imagine, and I ache for you.

If our experience can save others from tragedy, I’d like to share it far and wide. Don’t take water safety for granted. Please learn more about drowning in general and shallow water blackout in specific (visit www.shallowwaterblackoutprevention.org for more information). And please don’t take your children for granted either. They can be gone in the time it takes you to take a shower at the YMCA.20170531_130143

At a thank you luncheon for the lifeguards a week and a half after the accident.


*Lifeguards names/photos were not shared because three out of the four are minors.

Brenna Fender is a freelance writer who can be reached at BrennaFenderWriter@gmail.com, or via Facebook .


27 thoughts on “When Great Swimmers Drown

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  5. We hosted a senior level meet in indianapolis where one of the swimmers would periodically pass out during the figure competition – I think something about the position of her head in one set of figures would cut off the blood flow to her brain. I appreciated out attentive guards who had learned the hard way to watch every swimmer. Her teammates were paying attention, too. My oldest had an asthma attack at age group nationals in Minneapolis when she was about ten. I watched the rest of her routines from the pool deck and pointed her out to the guards. Synchro gave my daughter many transferable skills – she is now an MIT trained architect (choreography is just architecture in motion.) But yours is a cautionary tale for all parents.


  6. Great job of the lifeguards. My son was one of them that save her life and he told me that he has never seen the death so close to him. at that moment my son realized that a live can be lost in just a few seconds and how important his job is when he is on duties. He now loves even more what he does.


    • That is so great!!! I almost sent notes to all of the lifeguards’ parents to thank them for having such amazing children, but then I was afraid it was a bit intrusive. I didn’t want to insult these very capable young adults either. So I just keep baking stuff and bringing it in to the lifeguard office at the Y 🙂 Thank you for contacting me! So glad to know he isn’t traumatized.


  7. Scary, and as someone who almost drowned as a child, maybe a 10 yr old child shouldn’t be attempting a 50 m ‘zero under’. That child was to young to be attempting something like this. Thankful for attentive life guards.


  8. On June 15, 1978 I lost my older brother to drowning.

    I have been sharing this post (or a similar version of it) every year in honor of my brother.

    Drowning is SILENT. It is so important that people learn how to recognize the symptoms of a drowning victim. People (usually children) drown every day in the presence of adults.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so happy your daughter is okay.


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  10. Thank you for being willing to share your story. I’m SO glad that your daughter is alright…and as others have said, I had no clue what shallow water blackout was! So thankful that her story has a happy ending…praying that through your shared story others might become more aware and be saved from such a tragedy.


  11. Reading this brought chills. In 1993, while working as a lifeguard for the City of Dunedin, I too rescued a child who was working on “breath control” during swim team practice. Your daughter’s experience was eerily close to my experience, and while I wasn’t a mother at that time, I will never forget her mother and her reaction upon arriving at the facility to find a multitude of fire trucks and ambulances in the parking lot. Thank you for spreading the word. As a coach, I did not have my team do any breath holding exercises, and remember thinking that very thing while watching the team that awful day. I have told my story to both of my daughters, one of whom is a competitive swimmer herself. I passed on your story to both of them as well. I’m glad to see the strides that have been made since that time. Thank you for sharing.


    • It’s great to hear that you saved the child’s life! Thanks for sharing your story. And you know what, I’ve already thought about what an image I left in people’s minds, running out to the pool, yelling my daughter’s name. I suspect some people won’t forget that, which I feel bad about, but I can’t change it.


  12. Thank God your daughter is fine! The Tampa YMCA Lifeguards should be rewarded and applauded for a job well done. Thank you for sharing your story and I hope you continue to do so. I think lots of people have never heard of shallow water blackout and need to know so we can promote a culture of safety around pools.


  13. In 1968 I was lifeguarding at a pool at a state hospital. I was the occupational therapist with this group of adolescents but also a trained lifeguard. I overheard one of the boys saying he was going to see how long he could hold his breath. Unfortunately he had a seizure, so when I went into the water to tell him to go to the surface he was already passed out. Fortunately he survived with a case of pneumonia afterwards. But it sure taught me a lesson to be extra alert to what you hear the kids say.


  14. During training and testing, Navy Seals often black out while swimming under water. It is something they’re aware of and anticipate, and others spring into life saving action on those occasions when it occurs. That’s a whole different level of swimming, though…


  15. My husband drowned in a pool he had swam in for over 20 years. I can’t imagine losing one of my children, but he was my best friend and I miss him so much!!!


  16. OMG, how terrifying! So thankful your daughter is going to be okay. I was a competitive swimmer and diver as a kid and never heard of this, thank you for spreading the word.

    Liked by 1 person

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