OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - About 20 athletes became sick after participating in a triathlon this month that included a swim in the Oklahoma River, which has had problems with fecal coliform pollution, state health officials said Tuesday.
It is too early to determine the cause of the athletes' illness, symptoms of which included diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain, Oklahoma State Department of Health spokeswoman Leslea Bennett-Webb said. She said she didn't know if any of the 20 had been hospitalized.
"It certainly could have been the river," she said, "but we don't know that yet at all."
She 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 Health Department. Bennett-Webb said 367 athletes participated in the event.
She said health officials are trying to contact athletes to see if they are having any symptoms.
Debbie Ragan, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City's Utilities Department, said water samples taken on May 15 near the swim course showed an E. coli count of 573 per 100 milliliters of water. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board said standards for "primary body contact recreation," in which there is a chance water could be ingested, is a 126 count for E. coli.
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 began with a 1.5-kilometer swim in the Oklahoma River, starting at the docks by the Chesapeake Boathouse near downtown. The river, formerly a ditch that handled runoff, has been transformed in recent years into a prime venue for rowing events, but this was the first time part of a triathlon was held there.
Mike Knopp, 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.
"I think that it's one of those things that could be a lot of things," he said. "We're just waiting to hear."
Knopp said the May 15 testing was taken into consideration before the race, but the bacteria levels appeared to be dropping and the decision was made to go forward with the event.
Shoemaker said she's living proof that it was the river water that caused her and other competitors to become sick, because she didn't stay at the hotel with other competitors and didn't consume the same food and beverages they did, yet still became ill.
"It definitely came from the water," she said.
Scott Schnitzspahn, the sport performance director for Colorado Springs, Colo.-based USA Triathlon, said about six elite U.S. triathletes became sick, and about 10 elite and junior competitors from Canada also fell ill. He said the illnesses lasted from the Sunday after the race to "about midweek for most, some into this past weekend."
Although tests on the river water were done for about six months before the event, Knopp said no testing was done on the day of the event, because the processing time for such tests made it impractical to do so.
"You can't turn a test that quickly," Knopp said. "That's the problem."
He said previous testing indicated the river's water quality was generally good for swimming but could vary, depending on weather events.
Todd Brewer, the city of Oklahoma City's water quality lab manager, said the bacteria sample seemed elevated in water samples taken from the river after big rain storms. Parts of Oklahoma City received up to two inches of rain the day before the event.
"We're learning as we go," Knopp said. "We certainly don't want to get anybody sick."
Bret Sholar, the race director, said officials closely monitored the conditions and decided to go ahead and conduct the event because the water flow appeared safe, there was no debris in the river and it was a championship-caliber competition.
"Every first-year race has its issues," Sholar said. "Unfortunately ours was people becoming sick."
Before the triathlon, Derek Smithee, the water quality division chief of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said a six-mile section of the river near the boathouse is listed by the state as "impaired" because of fecal coliform, sulfates and turbidity.
Smithee said the ranking didn't mean the water wasn't safe for swimming.
"It's probably more dangerous to drive to the Oklahoma River than to swim in the Oklahoma River," Smithee said at the time.
On Tuesday, he said: "I meant that as an anecdotal comment. I would say the state health department and the Department of Environmental Quality are coordinating our response to that to make sure this sort of thing can be avoided."
The river opened to the public in December 2004. According to the city's Web site, swimming is not allowed in the river.
Shoemaker praised the race organizers, but said "unfortunately after this, I don't think even if they held an event ... that many people would go back."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.