Having a dip in Mission Bay is less difficult than wrestling ocean swells with the mighty Pacific: the pacified Mission Bay waters boast warmer temperatures, smaller waves, shallower beaches, and fewer rocks; and there are never bayside worries concerning riptides, violent swells, renegade surfers, or ravenous sharks. For juvenile bathers and elderly swimmers, the bay's the safer way to go.
Except for that small affair about the bay's being an impaired water body, teeming with dangerous levels of fecal bacteria.
This complicates matters for one particular pool of competitors, a group that is periodically forced, in order to maintain their identity, to swim out long and fast in Mission Bay. Triathletes.
The sport itself was born here on September 25, 1974, in and around the waters of Mission Bay. The brainchild of Jack Johnstone, that first race boasted 46 survivors. In one interview, Johnstone recalls having to order the award trophies. "The trophy maker called and asked how to spell triathlon. He hadn't found it in any dictionary. I thought, 'Well, if it's not in any dictionary, the word must not exist. It's up to me how to spell it.' Given the spellings pentathlon, heptathlon, and decathlon, I guess there wasn't really much choice, but it seemed like a lot of power at the time."
Now there are over a half dozen major triathlons in San Diego every year, attracting between 1000 and 1500 entrants for each event. An army in wetsuits storming once-placid waters. Did anyone feel sick in the weeks after that first race? And if they did feel sick, if any other postrace triathlete comes down with something, is it because of the water?
The awareness to water-related health issues has only recently been on the rise. Some triathletes grew conscious of the matter in 1998, following the Springfield Ironhorse Triathlon in Illinois. Subsequent to that race, 16 entrants were diagnosed with leptosporosis, a high fever linked to bacterial infection from cow urine. The debate continues today: who should be held responsible for the sicknesses incurred from that fateful race? Is it the government's responsibility to make sure that municipal water spaces are clean? Is it the race organizers' task to test the water? Or should it be an individual's decision to risk hard swims in iffy straits? And what about public responsibility? Should it fall to us and to local businesses not to litter and contaminate our own water sources?
And now, for the first time, an International Triathlon Union World Cup event -- the 2003 New York City Triathlon -- had the swim portion of the race canceled due to dangerously high bacterial levels in the Hudson River. Again, is this the first time the bacterial levels were too high? Or are we only just now beginning to figure it out?
The Triathlon Club of San Diego (TCSD or Tri Club) forms a tightly knit group who train together and race together, the oldest group of its type in the world. Motivation and support become almost as important as talent when you train upwards of 14 hours a week, sometimes hunched and pumping on a sleek bike, now hot on your own two feet, and then churning through salty water. Tri Club's brought athletes together since 1982, and it now boasts over 900 full-time members. The TCSD decided to take matters into its own hands ever since the water-quality issue began to hit home following the 2002 Spring Sprint Triathlon on South Shores in Mission Bay. As San Diegans should know by now, South Shores is an area that was used as a toxic-waste dump in the 1950s.
Local triathlete Laurel Ehrenfreund got sick after the Spring Sprint in 2002. Flu, cough, sore throat, lingering fatigue. And now, more than a year later, she still suffers all those symptoms. After undergoing countless batteries of tests, and ingesting everything from antibiotics to medicinal herbs, after taking up yoga, buying a juicer, and eliminating all the vice from her life, Ehrenfreund still experiences a mysterious sickness. And most frustratingly, no one can cure it or even tell her for sure what it's from. But when she read a report about San Diego water quality, and specifically about South Shores and the area beneath the old toxic-waste landfill, it occurred to her that her boyfriend had contracted and recovered from a minor respiratory infection after he finished the Spring Sprint as well. That's when she started researching and writing e-mails.
Turns out quite a few others in Tri Club had experienced some form of respiratory or gastrointestinal discomfort after that race. Many had simply considered it "part of the package" as in, train, race, sickness, recovery, then train and race again.
But Ehrenfreund was an example of a sick triathlete who hadn't recovered. And one of the athletes she eventually met, Tim Moran, had gotten almost as sick as Ehrenfreund. Moran's contraction of a mysterious, bacteria-related, adult-onset asthma after the 2001 race had ended his triathlon days for good.
So Ehrenfreund caught fire. She wrote to Donna Frye, the councilwoman who has taken the Mission Bay cleanup issues to heart; she wrote to Marco Gonzalez, the chairman of Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organized to protect San Diego's water and beaches; she wrote to Clay Clifton at the County Department of Environmental Health; she wrote to Rick Kozlovski, who organizes and promotes most of the local triathlons; and she wrote to Jim McCann, the head of the Triathlon Club of San Diego.
"There is a vital element to this story," wrote Ehrenfreund to Councilwoman Frye, "which I believe the city might want to explore, and which I hope you'll find compelling. Rain or shine, the water in Mission Bay and in San Diego Harbor is making people in these races sick. And as far as I can determine, no one, even those privy to the risks, appears to be monitoring, documenting, or taking responsibility for it."
The issue's urgency deepened this May when it rained on the morning of the 2003 Spring Sprint (a sure sign that the water would not be safe for swimming that day), and the race's organizer, Koz Enterprises, decided that the race would go on anyway as planned. (The president of Koz Enterprises, Rick Kozlovski, was in Hawaii at the time this article was written and could not be reached for comment.)
Nicole Capretz, the senior policy advisor for Councilwoman Frye, responded to Ehrenfreund's e-mail. "There is nothing we can do about the decision of the company to hold its race even when the Bay is posted for contamination. Due to the variable nature of water quality, it is the responsibility of the users of the water to determine when and when not to hold water-related events. It is the responsibility of the City to monitor the waters and post when there is contamination." Since even before Ehrenfreund began her crusade, one of the Tri Club's sponsors, Penta Water, had agreed to contribute its water-testing facility (Bio-Hydration Research Lab) free of charge. And one of the club's members, Barbara Javor, is a microbiologist. "Good tidal flow every day equals clean water," said Javor. "Mission Bay Triathlon, near Ski Beach in October, is in relatively clean water. But tidal energy is extremely low in the backwaters, and that's where the Spring Sprint -- and one of the fall triathlons, I think -- takes place every year. Not to mention, there seems to be high levels of dangerous materials in the sediment near South Shores. One problem is that there's no prescribed method for testing sediment yet; you know, is it area or volume? What's the amount? In the sediment, all you can tell is whether it's there or not, but you can't tell if it's dangerous."
Ehrenfreund said her great hope now is to raise awareness so that people will report it if they get sick from swimming in Mission Bay. Surfrider Foundation's website (www.surfridersd.org) offers a questionnaire for those who think they got sick from swimming. The Department of Environmental Health (www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh) is also tracking water-related illness. And there were six tents set up around Mission Bay all summer where biology students from UC Berkeley offered forms to be filled out by bay swimmers.
"It just seems that a lot more people are getting sick than we know about," said Ehrenfreund. "I mean, I personally know five or six triathletes who've gotten sick after races. Some of them more than once. And these are great athletes, who basically devote their lives to their training and racing. So it makes you think that there must be more people out there, but they don't know where to go with their information or what to do about it."
There's also the issue about whether there's a problem with the water at all. Which is part of the trouble when it comes to asking the city to allocate money for cleanup. How can anyone be sure if it's the water that's making these people sick?
Rescheduling the races could be a short-term solution, although TCSD president Jim McCann explained to me why it's so much more difficult to sponsor a race in the ocean than it is in the backwaters of Mission Bay. "Permits. You have so many crossed jurisdictions for beaches and roads near beaches and waters in the ocean, it would cost race organizers a bundle. Not to mention the extra lifeguards and safety issues. So you can have a bunch of races inland for the same cost as, like, one race out in the ocean."
Inland water is one thing, and though much of the western part of Mission Bay seems relatively clean, why is anyone allowed to swim, much less hold races on top of, an old, uncontained toxic-waste dump?