FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – The tragic death of Robert Hartline in last Sunday’s Sherwood Island Sprint Triathlon in Westport has left an indelible mark on my consciousness. I witnessed the rescue scene, in which Hartline, 62, was pulled from the water as family members watched in shock.
It was an upseting and gruesome experience. As an endurance athlete in my early 50s, I realized that we are all just passing through, and there is no delaying the inevitable when our number comes up.
I was taking pictures by the first transition area at last Sunday’s race when I noticed the commotion on the beach at Sherwood Island State Park. I walked over, not knowing what was happening. Within seconds, it was clear.
Emergency responders pounded on Hartline’s chest and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It pained me to do so, but I pulled out my camera and took pictures. That is not an easy part of my job, but I knew my supervisors would want the images. In this capacity, I was the eyes and ears of the Westport community. No other reporters were at the race. It was my professional obligation.
I watched for a while, then returned to track the triathlon. The leaders were starting the final running leg. I figured the man’s fate would be known later. I got a picture of emergency personnel taking Hartline to an ambulance.
I thought of him as I talked to the finishers, most of whom knew nothing about his collapse. After the race, I spoke with lifeguards who brought to Hartline to the shore. They gave me the specifics on what transpired.
The next 72 hours were frustrating, because information was slow in coming. It was understandable: you want to respect the family’s privacy and not jump the gun on a sensitive story. Understandable, but frustrating.
After I filed a story early Sunday, I was reminded of my own vulnerability. That’s the thing with endurance sports. You think you’re doing something healthy, but you never know. When I interviewed Weston’s Pat Marafiote for a profile on the Boston Marathon, he said he wasn’t sure whether exercise was delaying the inevitable or exacerbating it. But he keeps doing it and was one of the triathletes in Sunday’s race.
The tragedy happened days ago, but I can't shake it. I feel sad for the family of Hartline, apparently a wonderful man who had been married more than 30 years. I feel sad for the lifeguards and emergency personnel that did everything in their power to save him but couldn’t. I wonder whether other endurance athletes are thinking the same thing that rolls around in my head: Is it right to be doing endurance sports at this age?
Tom Renner is the Sports Editor for Fairfield County at DailyVoice.com. Follow him on Twitter.