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At least three triathletes sickened after Oklahoma City event

By Susan Simpson, Tim Henley and Bryan Dean - Staff Writers Modified: May 26, 2009 at 6:30 pm •  Published: May 26, 2009

At least three athletes have become sick after participating in a triathlon earlier this month that included a swim in the Oklahoma River, which has had problems with fecal coliform pollution.

State health officials are contacting all 367 participating athletes and have interviewed three who reported diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramping, said Laurence Burnsed, director of the state Health Department’s communicable disease division.

Burnsed said health workers will evaluate risk factors among those who are ill. He said illness could be due to many factors, including food poisoning, but early lab test are inconclusive. The three ill athletes were from different parts of the country.

“It’s too early in an investigation to establish if it’s an outbreak or what the cause may have been,” Burnsed said.

He said participants in the Boathouse International Triathlon, held May 16-17, should contact their personal physician if they have any symptoms and the doctor should call the state Health Department.

Jenna Shoemaker, an elite triathlete from Boston who finished second in the event, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that “today is the first day my stomach feels normal again. It was a good week of being sick. … My body was very achy, as if I’d been run over by a couple of trucks.”

The event, which includes swimming, cycling and running, began with a 1.5-kilometer swim in the Oklahoma River, starting at the docks by the Chesapeake Boathouse near downtown. The river has been transformed in recent years into prime venue for rowing events, but this was the first time a triathlon was held there.

Mike Knopp, the Chesapeake Boathouse’s executive director, said he learned of the reports of gastrointestinal illness over the weekend and is waiting to learn more about what caused the problem.

“This is not abnormal in the sport,” Knopp said. “Anytime you get in a body of water, this is part of the natural risk.”

He said participants told him they enjoyed their time here.

“They absolutely raved about Oklahoma City and the experience and the venue itself,” he said

Phillip Vanlandingham, president of The Triathlon Club of Oklahoma City, said the public shouldn’t assume the water contributed to the illnesses until the health department determines a cause.

“They did extensive testing to the river prior to the race, and everything was fine,” he said.

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