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by Steven Munatones

March 11, 2010

A True Story of an American Collegiate Swimming Coach

FINA’s 25K (15.5-mile) open water swim typically takes between five and six hours for the world’s best marathon swimmers to finish, depending on the water and weather conditions.

The open water swimming events at the 2009 World Swimming Championships were delayed because of bad weather. Of these races, the 25K race was held under the most difficult conditions. Strong winds and turbulent seas were difficult on everyone involved – from the athletes in the water to the coaches on the feeding pontoons.

It was under these conditions that FINA official Rick Walker of Southern Illinois University became a hero and reminded us how diligent and observant race officials, judges and coaches must be when participating in open water swimming events.

At the time of the incident, Walker was serving as the assistant referee in the women’s 25K race where 18 of the world’s best female marathon swimmers from 10 countries were fighting fatigue, sea swells and wind-generated surface chop. These swimmers included English Channel swimmers, world champions and Olympians.

As an individual who has coached at 11 world championships and escorted dozens of marathon swimmers in all kinds of conditions in oceans, lakes and rivers around the world, Walker was among the most qualified and experienced open water officials in Rome. But the conditions were very difficult, even for a veteran like Walker.

He was in a boat going the speed of the swimmers, standing up the entire time while his boat was being battered by the ocean swells. While trying to stay upright in the boat, he had to maintain concentration for over six hours as he closely observed the field, making judgment calls on the physical contact between the competitors.

Towards the end of the race, Walker thought something was wrong when he saw Kate Brookes-Peterson pass through the feeding station. Brookes-Peterson, an experienced open water swimmer from Australia, who had won two bronze medals at the 2007 World Swimming Championships, just did not look right to him.

Walker immediately directed his boat captain to be in a position to help Brookes-Peterson if anything went wrong. No one else sensed this potential danger as he moved his referee’s boat towards the back of the women’s lead pack. Walker recalled, "I saw Kate go through the feeding pontoon and she didn't look good. She was struggling. Because she was a world championship medalist in 2007 and normally a strong swimmer, I knew something was not right.”

At the time, Walker informed the head referee, Jorge Delgado of Ecuador, that he was going to look after Brookes-Peterson.

"When I was heading over to Kate, she stopped, went vertical and raised her hand. Then, she went under. I was watching her position as we were moving towards her. When she came back up, she was gasping for air. She waved her hand, went limp and went under again.”

“When we got to her, her hand was up, but she was underwater. I was able to reach down underwater and grab her and pull her up. I don't think she was going to come back up. She gasped for air as she surfaced and we finally got her into the boat as she passed out. She was out for about 30 seconds.”

After Walker initially attended to Brookes-Peterson, the Italian lifesaving personnel had arrived to oversee the situation and she later recovered.

It was Walker's foresight, his understanding of the athletes, his knowledge of the potential dangers of open water swimming and his quick action that saved Brookes-Peterson – and serves as a reminder of the perils of open water swimming. "It’s a good thing we got to her before she took in too much water and drowned,” recalled Walker. “We were thankful to get her out of the water and out of danger.”