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Outside The Lines, explore triathlon swimming deaths

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The first thing ESPN Enterprise Unit Producer Greg Amante did when he was assigned to create an Outside The Lines piece on the rise in deaths of triathlon competitors, was, go for a swim. With research by Olympic sports and enterprise reporter Bonnie Ford revealing that 85 percent of triathlon deaths from 2007 through mid-October 2013 occurred while swimming, Amante wanted to get a first-hand feel of what he’d be dealing with.

Amante’s video feature airs Sunday on OTL (ESPN2, 8 a.m. ET).

“I’m in pretty good shape — I can run and I can bike — but I wasn’t a swimmer,” he said. “After 10 laps I was exhausted, and I didn’t know why. I learned it’s all about being calm. You have all these great athletes in triathlons, but they’re all hyped up about running and biking, so when they jump into the cold water, and have swimmers banging into them, they can’t stay calm. It may trigger something in their bodies they’re not used to.”

Armed with his experience and Ford’s research, Amante enlisted “five really good photographers to help get a sense of what it is like to swim in an open water triathlon. I wanted to show what it was like from a swimmer’s perspective to swim with lots of swimmers around him or her, and hopefully show how difficult of a swim it is.”

Amante’s piece also will present a first-person look via a miniature GoPro camera strapped onto the back of a swimmer in the New York and New Orleans triathlons.

San Francisco’s “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon also plays prominently in the piece. Amante, reporter T.J. Quinn, Ford and crew visited the family of Ross Ehlinger, 46, who died of an apparent heart attack during that swim in March.

“We went to their house the night before [the shoot] and had dinner with the whole family [wife Jena and children Sam, 15; Jake, 12; Morgen, 9),” Amante said. “No cameras, just to get to know them. We sometimes forget it’s not normal for families to have cameras around. Just spending time with them the night before made them comfortable enough so that we could just be like a fly on the wall.”

A television crew can be an uncommonly large fly.

“Having three of us on a piece is not usual, like a three-headed monster,” said Amante, a Maryland native and Towson University graduate who joined ESPN in 2001 after working for CNN in Paris for 13 years. “But T.J. and I have worked together, and make a good team, and Bonnie was immersed in it early on and was the engine who kept us going. This story is about swimming deaths in triathlons, and the family is the narrative thread throughout.”

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