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Widow looking for answers after Quebec man dies in Texas Ironman competition

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Jean-Francois Alain was a healthy father who had competed in triathlons for more than a decade.

He was going to turn 50 this year and his widow, Veronique Tremblay, says he set a goal for himself to complete the Ironman triathlon to mark the milestone.

The grueling event requires a lot of preparation, so along with his training at home in Montreal, he and a friend signed up for a half ironman in Galveston, Tx. on April 7, 2024.

Tremblay, who normally travelled with her husband and shared his love of running, recalls the last time they spoke. It was over FaceTime and Alain had just finished carbo-loading to get ready for the big day.

"He was thrilled," she said. "I told him to stay safe."

Jean-Francois Alain was a healthy father who had competed in triathlons for over a decade, his wife said. (Submitted)

She said he was in great health, and had even gone to the doctor the week before he left.

The next morning, during the first leg of the triathlon — the swim — something went wrong. According to Tremblay, he had raised his hand to signal for help. What happened in the minutes between that signal and when he arrived at the hospital is now part of an investigation the family has arranged through Houston attorney William Moye.

Tremblay says witness accounts have indicated there may have been a delay in getting help.

"It’s not like he was floating around and they didn’t notice," she said. "He raised his hand for help. And after that we had some witnesses come forward and there’s some information that points to the fact there were challenges."

She says the loss of her husband of 29 years, the father of her two teenage sons, has been devastating. "He was my best friend," she said.

In a statement sent Wednesday, Ironman said:

"We are saddened to confirm the death of a race participant from the IRONMAN 70.3 Texas triathlon. Swim safety personnel recognized a distressed athlete requiring medical attention approximately 950m into the swim. The athlete was attended to quickly and provided immediate medical care before being transported to a nearby hospital where they sadly passed. Our gratitude goes out to the swim safety personnel and first responders for their quick work in assisting the athlete. We share our condolences with the family and friends of the athlete as they go through this very difficult time."

An autopsy has been completed but the results won’t be available for several months.

Deaths during Ironman events are rare, but they do happen. The vast majority of these deaths occur during the swimming portion of the triathlon.

Anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Moon from Duke University has spent years researching the deaths that occur during triathlons.

He says while most presume these deaths are caused by heart attacks, the evidence shows there may be another reason.

"For example, if it’s a heart attack, you would expect that people would be exposed to the same stress in terms of the exercise, whether they’re running or biking as they would be swimming. And yet there are very few deaths during the dry portions of a triathlon," he said.

"So that, to me, suggested there may be another explanation, which I was interested in exploring, which was swimming induced pulmonary oedema (SIPE)."

The condition is when the lungs fill up with fluid from inside the body rather than the water. He says some people are more susceptible to this condition, and the research is being used to determine risk factors and prevent deaths from occurring.

Tremblay, meanwhile, is planning a celebration of her husband’s life.

"He was the engine of our family," she said. "The last moments I had with him before he died I asked him to give me strength to continue in the way he was driving our family."

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