Ironman tragedy: What exactly happened during the fatal triathlon in Youghal?

The deaths of two Ironman athletes have rocked the Co Cork seaside town

For the people of Youghal, Co Cork, the Ironman is more than just an extreme endurance race, it is an economic lifeline. The struggling seaside town remains festooned with flags and signs meant to welcome athletes and spectators.

For the past week, almost every local business has kept an Ironman flag in the window, alongside a candle lit for the two men who died taking part in the race. On Sunday morning, locals, visitors and those race participants who were aware were shocked by the news that two triathlon athletes had died. The town continues to grieve, with locals expressing their sympathies with the families of Ivan Chittenden (64) and Brendan Wall (45).

Saturday, August 19th – 5.37am

As athletes and spectators poured on to the promenade at the Front Strand beach in Youghal, Ironman Ireland announced that the half-length race due to take place that morning was to be postponed until the next day. The organiser explained that the 70.3 mile race, half a full Ironman race distance, would take place alongside the main race on Sunday morning due to “severe adverse weather conditions” caused by Storm Betty on Friday. Ironman Ireland stated the delay of the race would ensure that it could run a “great and safe event for our athletes”.

Saturday, August 19th – 6.55am

An hour after the official announcement postponing the race, athletes on the beach were advised not to enter the water by stewards of the event. “We were told the water was still too rough as a result of the storm the other day,” said Alan, an English athlete who did not compete the next day, and who asked to be identified by his first name only. “I had booked in to compete in the 70.3 but I couldn’t stay around until Sunday. So I was trying to get my feet wet before I left.” It was to be his first time taking part in an Ironman event.

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Many other athletes had booked accommodation for the Friday night but had not organised lodgings for the Saturday night. Still hoping to compete in the postponed event, lots of travelling athletes were stuck trying to find a hotel room for the additional night.

Two Welsh visitors who took part in the event said this was when the “legendary Irish welcome kicked in”. Youghal locals offered up their spare bedrooms to those stranded without accommodation for the night. Online in the replies to the official announcements, local residents from Youghal as well as nearby Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and Midleton, Co Cork, and further afield in Stradbally, Co Waterford, offered rooms and air mattresses to the stricken athletes free of charge. On the Front Strand, towels, tents and constant offers of tea were spread among the crowd to anyone impacted by the half-distance being postponed. The local GAA club opened its doors to those not aided by the local people’s generosity.

Saturday, August 19th – 14.30pm

Ironman Ireland officially confirmed the postponement of the 70.3 mile race to Sunday morning, as well as reverting the swimming course to the original route. On Friday, the organiser had announced it would be changing the route for the half-Ironman to a separate course in Youghal Bay which it labelled as “more protected” from the “adverse weather conditions”. For the race on Sunday, “due to the improving weather conditions”, both the planned 3.8km and 1.9km swimming routes would now enter the water at the Front Strand area.

Sunday, August 20th – 6am

Well in advance of the planned 6.30am start time for the professional athletes, crowds of locals began to gather along the promenade. “The atmosphere was electric,” said Martin Dunne (68), originally from Youghal but now living in Cork city. “I made my way back to Youghal for the weekend because the atmosphere in the town during the Ironman is incredible every year.

“The competitors were all racing down to the start line before the thing even began,” said Mr Dunne, “we could see the professional swimmers limbering up in advance of the race starting – doing their arm warm-ups. The regular people taking part were lined up as long as you could see down the beach.”

Sunday, August 20th – 6.30am

The planned start time came and went, and an announcement on the loudspeakers notified the participants that the first delays to the race on Sunday were taking place. Another participant from England who complained to Ironman as well as Cork City Council about disorganisation at the event said the participants were “stuck waiting in the cold” for an hour; they could see boats out in the water moving buoys and adjusting the course layout.

Another announcement was made to the crowds at the start line, the swimming section for both races taking place would be reduced to 1.9km. The official statement from the organiser said it was making this change “due to the current conditions of the water at the swim start” and delayed the race start until 7am.

The English participant, who did not want to be named, said he began to get nervous about taking part as the organiser adjusted the course due to the conditions in the water. He said he could see the stewards and safety volunteers in the water “struggling to stay in place” due to the power of the sea. He decided to still take part in the race, “the organisers wouldn’t put us in danger,” he recalled thinking at the time.

Sunday, August 20th – 7am

Ironman staff gathered at the start line and entered into discussion with the professional male participants, the first group to begin the event. After clarifying the new, shortened course route with the stewards, the first athletes lined up at the starting arch. For 14 minutes, the athletes wearing pink swimming hats and black wetsuits prepared for the starting procedures.

Sunday, August 20th – 7.14am

The bell was rung, the professional competitors entered their ready positions, the steward at the start line looked at his watch and the crowd began to cheer. “Get back again,” a steward called as the athletes and crowds at the starting line let out a collective groan.

Speaking to The Irish Times, a triathlon coach who operates in the area said these delays could completely disrupt the athletes from “entering their zone” and mentally preparing for the race to begin. The coach, who did not wish to be named, said that while it was extremely unusual to change the course so close to the race beginning, the conditions in the water were very normal for the area and did not concern him or, he said, the “more serious” athletes who were first to enter the water.

Deaths at the Youghal Ironman: what went wrong?

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Sunday, August 20th – 7.20am

The race finally began. The professional male athletes sprinted down the beach and were greeted by the cold, hard waves of the angry sea. The first group of athletes made it through the breaking waves with relative ease. The female professionals, wearing yellow caps, followed. As subsequent groups of swimmers met the waves, however, people began to struggle to enter the water. One local who was watching the race from the promenade, David Quinn, said he could see the rescue kayaks “struggling to get out through the waves”. As the amateur swimmers raced down to the water, Mr Quinn said they were rebuffed by the waves and some were unable to enter the water.

More and more swimmers entered the water every few seconds in a staggered start, many amateur swimmers struggling to get past the first waves on the beach. Strong waves broke on to swimmers on the beach knocking some back. The triathletes were barraged by “very big, very powerful waves” and some people began to panic in the water, according to Sinéad, who also wished to be identified only by her first name.

Sinéad said she was an experienced triathlete who was “used to the sea”. However, she recalled observing at the time that “people are really going to struggle” in the conditions. The combination of a “really strong current” as well as “very big, very powerful waves” left other participants panicking in the water. There were “loads” of kayakers in the water ready to help the athletes, she said, but added that they were difficult to see at times.

“Your heart rate is through the roof before you start,” she said, “you get into the water and triathletes become savages in the water, there’s kicking, there’s punching.” Racing through the waves as they enter the water, the athletes knocked into each other.

Sunday, August 20th – 7.30am

The lead swimmers swam for 400 metres, against the strong current, to turn around a red buoy about halfway down the Front Strand beach. It was a gruelling swim southwest against the tide, but as they turned back towards Youghal Bay the tides started working with the swimmers. Culann O’Brien was one of the last swimmers to get to the turning buoy, before the stewards in the kayaks redirected participants back down the beach, shortening the course to 1.2km. He said changes during the race caused confusion but that once he turned towards Youghal Bay, the swimming section felt easier.

Sunday, August 20th – 7.50am

The athletes in the professional male division who had completed their swim and mounted their bikes - stationed in Green Park - reached the top of Lighthouse hill. One Youghal resident, Jennifer Kirwan, walked up to a spot known as Moll Goggin’s Corner, halfway along the swimming route.

As the amateur swimmers came along the first corner of the course, she remarked to her sister, “this is ridiculous, they shouldn’t have been allowed in the water”. She watched the swimmers pass by the rocks on the approach to Youghal Lighthouse where she said she met an Ironman participant who had exited the water early out of fear for his safety. It was the athlete’s first attempt at an Ironman event, and he was disappointed that he had exited the water early.

But Ms Kirwan said the local athlete told her that those entering the water “were getting bashed against the rocks” and were struggling to even get into the water. “So many people were getting into the water and they were panicking – you’re heading into a wave and before you get to catch a breath, another one hits you. I couldn’t believe they let them in.”

Ms Kirwan said she noticed a stricken swimmer who was trying to get the attention of a rescue kayak, “he was waving his hands to get one of the canoes to come over and pull him out [of the water] but they couldn’t even get close because of the waves”.

Sunday, August 20th – 8.01am

It was on this stretch that Ivan Chittenden, from Toronto, Canada got into difficulties. The keen triathlete, who was described as a “gentleman” who lived a “full” life by his trainer, was taken by a rescue boat to land before being rushed to Cork University Hospital by ambulance.

Mr Chittenden had studied business at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada and worked as a senior partner in Ernst and Young before retiring two years ago. In his early 50s he had learned to swim and became an endurance athlete.

Sunday, August 20th – 8:30am

Over the next hour athletes completed the swimming section of the race. At the exit ramp from the swimming event beside the staging area at Green Park, medical teams rushed to perform emergency care to Brendan Wall.

The Meath man was living in Solihull in the English West Midlands, where he worked as the sales and marketing director for Top Tubes Ltd., a steel fabrication company. Coming up to 8.45am, Mr Wall was carried up the ramp by paramedics on a stretcher. Some spectators prayed as the stretcher was loaded into an ambulance opposite Green Park. His funeral took place in Slane on Thursday.

Sunday, August 20th – 12pm

At midday, Ironman announced that it was “deeply saddened to confirm the death of two race participants at the Ironman 70.3, Ireland, Cork 2023”.

The statement said that “during the swim portion of Sunday’s race, safety personnel provided immediate medical attention upon recognising the athletes were in need of assistance”.

Ironman said it “shares our greatest sympathies with the families and friends of the athletes and will continue to offer them our support as they go through this very difficult time. We thank the safety personnel and first responders who worked quickly to provide the athletes with medical assistance.”

More than an hour later, the race winner of the Ironman 70.3, Kyle Smith, crossed the finish line. At the time, the athletes taking part in the event began to hear of the men’s deaths.

“I was shocked,” said participant Culann O’Brien. The two men’s deaths were a “terribly sad tragedy” and he heard the news only when he finished the race, he added. “I had met up with family members celebrating with a pint of Guinness when somebody said it to me.”

The aftermath

In the days following the race, conflicting accounts emerged about the circumstances in which the event started.

National governing body Triathlon Ireland said its decision not to sanction the race because of safety issues was communicated to Ironman before the race began. That statement contradicted Ironman’s previous assertion that it was informed of the Triathlon Ireland decision not to sanction the race only hours after the swim finished.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Cork East Fianna Fáil TD James O’Connor from Youghal said the “community is heartbroken” following the two deaths which he said were “deeply tragic”.

“We want to make sure when Ironman comes back to Youghal that it is safely run so we don’t have fatalities.

“Notwithstanding the difficulties, this is a huge, huge issue for Ironman as an organisation. There is going to be a very very complicated and controversial inquest into the deaths which will take a number of months.

“We want to make sure that when Ironman returns here that it is done safely,” Mr O’Connor said, “there’s no question of people here locally not wanting Ironman to return.”

He said the event departing Youghal would be “the worst of all outcomes, abandoning the community here”.

Local business owners echoed this concern. Kay Curtin of Kay’s Flowers on North Main Street offered her “sincere sympathies with the families”, adding that every business in Youghal had put a candle in the window on Monday morning.

She said the local community was concerned that the Ironman would not come back to Youghal. “It is a worry for the businesses in town because we do not seem to have anything else. Our tourism sector was hit an awful lot this year and over Covid.

“Economically the event is so important to the town” after Youghal lost its “industry and manufacturing in the 90s”, Ms Curtin said. “There’s no doubt about it, our town is struggling and if this event does not come back next year, we will struggle more. We feel forgotten about by the powers that be. People seem to have forgotten about us in Youghal.”

She said the town’s businesses “depend on the Ironman coming to town every year”, and that something of an industry had sprung up around the sporting event in the town. “People come to Youghal year-round to train,” she said. The event brings tourists to an area which has suffered economically over the past 30 years.