In 2001, when I was still in high school, Kyle Hurdle drowned in Newport News while trying to do a 75 underwater. He was only 21 years old. It rocked the Hampton Roads community. 

In 2015, Brett Marihugh and Seth Lewis, both Navy SEALs, drowned right down the street from my house in one of the pool’s I learned how to swim in. 

Hypoxic blackout (aka Shallow Water Blackout) is the most dangerous aspect of competitive swimming. Drowning prevention, as many of you know, is near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, I’ve seen, heard, and been a part of dangerous breath holding exercises. The sole reason this continues is a lack of awareness and understanding. Thus, I felt the need to share this story from the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange Group on Facebook.

Please note that USA Swimming, the YMCA of the USA, and the American Red Cross have asked the swimming community to stop referring to “Hypoxic Blackout” as “Shallow Water Blackout”. 

“The use of this language in these cases is misleading since water depth is not a factor in the body’s response to hyperventilation and extended breath-holding.”

This was copied and pasted from the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange Group on Facebook. I’ve highlighted portions for your consideration.

At the end of practice tonight, Kelly’s group at swim practice was directed to do an underwater no breath swim in the 50 M pool. The coach was a substitute coach. Kelly told the coach that it was dangerous to do and to tell the swimmers that they can come up for a breath if they need it. He didn’t. The swimmers did the 50 M underwater. The coach stayed at the end of the pool they started from. Kelly got out, put on her jacket and towel and almost headed to the lockerroom. She noticed that one of her teammates was not on deck. She had not surfaced. Kelly ripped off her jacket and towel, jumped into the pool and swam until she found her, FACE DOWN in 15 FT of water! Kelly pulled her to the surface. Her face was BLUE- SHE WAS NOT BREATHING!. Another swimmer helped Kelly get the girl out of the pool. Another 14 year old teammate, who JUST received her CPR certification, began CPR on the swimmer. The EMT got there and thank GOD this young lady is ALIVE tonight!
Those 3 young ladies saved that swimmer’s life but it could have had a very unfortunate ending. Are no breath swims worth the risk? Is there enough education for coaches (just recently I stopped my new assistant coach from doing no breath 25s with her 9-10 yr olds). My niece is a hero but she doesn’t want to hear that or talk about it. She is distraught tonight. It shouldn’t have happened. So grateful the swimmer didn’t die. And would you believe that the swimmer’s mom has always been at practice- except for tonight! Just something to think about.


The young lady that nearly drown was released from the hospital today (Thursday). She said that she could hear everyone talking but she couldn’t respond. My niece, Kelly, said that although they have done underwater swims before, there was something about this one that made her feel uneasy and that’s why she didn’t go into the lockerroom right away, ultimately noticing that her friend wasn’t out of the pool yet. The head coach of 30+ years and the assistant coach of the team Kelly swims for (for 2 yrs) said they didn’t realize the danger of swimming underwater and extended breath holding. They thought Kelly was joking when she kept saying it was dangerous! They thought she was trying to get out of doing it. The coaching staff sent out this email to the team last night:

Tuesday night at practice our team learned a very big lesson. One of our swimmers blacked out while swimming underwater. It was a tremendous scare to all of the swimmers and parents who witnessed this event transpire.
Thanks to the quick and brave actions of our swimmers, we were able to revive and rescue her from drowning.
Our swimmer, experienced what is known as shallow water blackout. Shallow water blackout (SWB) can affect anyone who is breath-holding, even the physically fit swimmer. It is especially seen in competitive swimmers, Navy SEALs, snorkelers, spear fishermen or anyone who free-dives. Blackouts cut across the spectrum of free diver training affecting all levels. No one is protected from succumbing to an underwater blackout.
Shallow Water Blackout results from hypoxia (low oxygen) to the brain. What triggers one to breathe is elevation of carbon dioxide (CO2), not low oxygen (O2). One basically “blacks out” or faints in the water. For some, their lungs will take on water leading to drowning while others simply suffocate or die of other causes brought on by the breath holding. Death can be a result of the prolonged breath holding, even if not from so called “Shallow Water Blackout.” Breath-holding may stimulate genetic triggers leading to various causes of death. Shallow Water Blackout occurs WITHOUT ANY WARNING of its onset. In fact, because of the hypoxia and detached mental state one can feel euphoric and empowered to continue breath-holding.
We feel that it is important that you share this with your son/daughter and explain to them the dangers of breath holding and playing breath holding games. Our team is also going to take the following steps.
Educate our swimmers on the dangers of breath holding.
Explain that hyperventilating is not good, as it lowers the body co2 level and urge to breath.
No underwater challenge games will be played at practice.
Hypoxic training sets will be done on the surface of the water
Limit the distance swam underwater to under :15 seconds.
Remind swimmers not to ignore the urge to breathe.
Early intervention and recognition was responsible for a positive outcome. It is important for our swimmers and parents to stay vigilant and if at anytime you observe a swimmer that may be struggling, notify a coach and seek help immediately.
We are very lucky and blessed that this incident did not end in tragedy. We are thankful for all the swimmers and parents who acted swiftly and we are hopeful that this will serve us as a constant reminder not to take safety for granted.

PS- our swimmer is still in the hospital for observation, but is doing well! The family is very thankful for all the thoughts and prayers.

Lastly, I wanted to share with everyone Bob Bowman’s presentation on hypoxic blackout. NBAC lost a young swimmer, Louis Lowenthal, to hypoxic blackout in 2012. Note: This video has since been taken down from YouTube.

Every swim coach of every level should watch this video at least once a year. Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing.

pace clock swimming


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