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.)