On second thought

When the fit don’t survive

Death of professor in triathlon is shocking but not unprecedented

Full of energy at 58
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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On the Sunday morning of Aug. 21, David Aschauer, an economics professor at Bates, traded a couple of texts with his daughter, Erika. He was in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, ready and eager to enter his very first triathlon. Erika, 30, en route to Lake Winnipesaukee to participate in a different triathlon with her husband, Luke Rodrigue, wished her dad good luck.

“It was about 6 a.m. and he wrote right back,’’ recalled Erika, unaware that it would be the final time she communicated with her dad. “And he said, ‘I just got here . . . go for it!’ ’’

Fit, trim, full of energy, and a subtle advocate of health through fitness, the 58-year-old Aschauer collapsed less than two hours later with some 150 feet to go in the 500-yard swimming portion of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust fund-raising triathlon.

Quickly plucked from Kettle Cove and administered CPR, Aschauer was transported to the Maine Medical Center in nearby Portland, where he was pronounced dead the next day.

“We are definitely in complete shock,’’ Erika said yesterday, speaking by cellphone near her home in Augusta. “My dad was such a healthy individual. One of those guys, you know, we thought we’d have him around until he’s 100 years old. You just never think that something like this is going to happen.’’

In and of itself, sudden death is not unusual, but it is always surprising, unsettling, all the more when it happens to someone who is relatively young and leading a full and fit life. According to Erika, a member of the MMC staff told the family that Aschauer’s heart showed some thickening in the wall but nothing deemed life-threatening. Now they await the results of an autopsy in hopes of learning precisely what went wrong for a man who always appeared fit, strong, vibrant.

Earlier last month, two competitors died during the New York City Nautica Triathlon, both succumbing during the mile swim along the Hudson River on the Upper West Side. Michael Kudryk, 64, of Freehold, N.J., and Amy Martich, a 40-year-old mother of three young children from Elmhust, Ill., died within hours of each other. Three years earlier, a 32-year-old Argentine, Esteban Neira, died in the same New York race, also after arresting during the swim.

Last year, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association chronicled 14 triathlon deaths in competitors ages 28-65 during the years 2006-08. All but one of the fatalities was the result of swimming, which is always the sport’s leadoff event.

According to the report, the majority of the deceased were found to have preexisting heart abnormalities. The study, led by Kevin Harris, a Minneapolis Heart Institute cardiologist, included a review of 2,971 US triathlons, a total of some 960,000 participants, leaving the sport with a seemingly low mortality rate of 1 in every 68,500.

That maze of statistics aside, and the hurt of her father’s loss still wrenching, Erika Rodrigue believes her dad would still advocate for triathlons and would continue to encourage people to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’s the way Aschauer and his then-wife, Sarah, raised their three kids, all of whom were either exercising or exploring the outdoors at the hour of their dad’s death.

Erika, in fact, figures she was in the water at Lake Winnipesaukee, charging through the 1.2-mile swim, when her father collapsed in the Atlantic at about 7:30 a.m.

“And what’s weird,’’ she said, “is that both Luke and I had this strange thing happen to us during our races. Both of us had this awful taste in our mouths. It felt like we had bloody noses. We didn’t, but it was just this feeling, something neither of us had ever experienced. No idea what that was.’’

Erika’s youngest sibling, Henry, 23, was in Washington state, on a trip to climb Mount Rainier. He was out of cellphone range and wouldn’t learn of his father’s passing until many hours later, upon returning down the mountain.

“Two of his friends found out about dad during the day,’’ recalled Erika, “and they both flew from Chicago to Washington that day to be there to tell him in person when he came down. I’d say that’s two special friends.

“And when I went to my dad’s apartment in Portland after he died, a book about Mount Rainier was open on his bed. He wanted to know more, because Henry was there.’’

Nick Aschauer, 27, like his dad that day, was out on the Atlantic, on a lobster boat off the Maine coast.

“He fell right off the boat that day,’’ said Erika. “That’s never happened to him. Lost his wallet, glasses . . . like I say, some weird stuff that day, for sure.’’

Aschauer, a member of the Bates faculty for two decades, was known on campus as a demanding, challenging teacher. Born in Springfield, Ill., on March 8, 1953, he also taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Bowdoin, and the University of Kiev (Ukraine). In the economics world, his research in the 1980s, detailing the economic impact of government spending on infrastructure, remains an important work to this day.

Fellow Bates professor Dennis Browne twice partnered with Aschauer on student trips to St. Petersburg, Russia, where they spent full semesters teaching in 2006 and 2008. Browne was impressed at how diligently his friend worked to learn to speak and write Russian prior to that first trip.

“In situation liked that, I’m designated the lead professor,’’ said Browne, who has taught Russian language and culture at Bates for a quarter-century. “But David was so proficient in Russian, it didn’t feel that way at all. It was just so impressive, how he mastered it. He said to me a couple of times, ‘You know, Dennis, I probably worked as hard or harder to learn Russian as I did to get my PhD in economics.’ I bet he did. And he was brilliant in economics.’’

Browne also regularly partnered in tennis with Aschauer. They both grew up in Illinois, and both got the hockey bug when St. Louis was awarded an NHL franchise in the 1960s. For many years, said Erika, her dad zipped around the Bates campus on rollerblades, a love, said Browne, that Aschauer developed when roller skates became a Blues-stoked rage in the ’60s.

“David wasn’t a guy who was defined through sports, obviously,’’ said Browne. “But it was such a part of his life. When we’d go to Russia, he’d find a fitness club right away and spend hours there. In recent years, he got into yoga.

“The triathlon, I didn’t even know he was doing that until I learned of his death. But I know he loved exercise and physical activity, and the root of it for him, I think - and we talked about it - was that he just loved the challenges. He always wanted to get better.’’

Aschauer maintained that challenge to the very last beat of his heart.

Ted Darling, president of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust and the triathlon’s director, said yesterday that the Trust intends to honor a request by the Aschauer family to name next year’s event after the noted economist.

Erika Rodrigue knows her dad wouldn’t want his death to deter any athlete from being challenged, from competing. She and her dad often ran together, most recently in a 5K race, and he took up triathlons in large part because she and her husband introduced him to the sport.

“I miss him a lot, we all do,’’ she said. “Next year, I want to be in the Cape Elizabeth triathlon, and I want to ride his bike. It’ll probably be too big for me, but that’s OK. I want to ride his bike and finish the triathlon for him.

“Because I know one thing for sure: He’s mad because he didn’t finish it.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at