Recently, a task force involving the American Red Cross, the YMCAs, and USA Swimming studied shallow water blackout (SWB), in which swimmers are rendered unconscious as a result of extreme breath-holding that is competitive, repetitive, and often preceded by hyperventilation.
This group claimed to coin a term that is more clear and accurate and, therefore, less confusing than “shallow water blackout,” which has nothing to do with water depth. Their preferred name is "hypoxic blackout," and they no longer recognize SWB. Hypoxic blackout means a severe reduction of oxygen to the body that dramatically affects brain function, leading to unconsciousness, which can be followed by brain damage and then death.
So what’s the big deal?
While the task force notes that the term shallow water blackout is misleading and confusing, they replaced SWB with something that makes no mention of the word water. Hypoxic blackout is a generic term for unconsciousness that can be caused by a myriad of medical maladies, whether on land or in water. This term takes the spotlight off water safety and makes a very specific problem, with a specific audience, seem generic.
Now that’s confusing, too!
Some might be critical of the source but, in my opinion, the Wikipedia definition does a far superior job explaining blackouts in the water due to breath-holding. Editors of that page renamed the traditional free diving blackout in the open water as "deep water blackout," because breath-hold divers would ascend from the deep before losing consciousness at or near the surface, in shallow water. They reserve the name shallow water blackout for the swimming pool version of breath-holding blackouts.
For the past quarter century, we have worked extremely hard getting the public and the media to understand the dangers of extreme breath-holding in the water. Shallow water blackout has become more readily recognizable internationally, thanks to Bob Bowman’s and Michael Phelps’ public service announcement on SWB, plus national non-profit SWB groups in the USA, UK, and Australia, and exposure on CNN, "Good Morning America," and other outlets. Now that we have finally gained traction, the task force has changed the term to a generic one with no reference to water. In my opinion, this is major step backwards in our educational campaign to prevent shallow water blackout.
Shallow water blackout may not be the best term for extreme breath-holding in swimming pools, but it is certainly more descriptive than hypoxic blackout, and it does have longevity. I think renaming SWB to hypoxic blackout is a disservice and may even become counter-productive.
The bottom line: We all must work together in stopping extreme breath-holding that is competitive and repetitive, whether on the surface of the water or below it. The term shallow water blackout has been used successfully for many years to describe this problem. Why change the name now after building some momentum?
In closing, I still like to use the phraseology A.B. Craig coined more than fifty years ago: “One breath, one time; one length, one time.”