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Swimmer had long experience in bay event

Robert Matysek, who died of accidental drowning at Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, and his family had taken part in event for many years

By Danae King, The Baltimore Sun

9:11 PM EDT, June 10, 2014

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The weekend of the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was better than any holiday for Robert Matysek. The South Carolina man loved to spend time swimming with his family.

The 4.4-mile race from Sandy Point State Park to Kent Island was "like Christmas, the Fourth of July and his birthday all wrapped in one," said Matysek's brother Jim.

Robert Matysek, who grew up in Baltimore, died Sunday while swimming the event with two of his brothers. He was 58.

The state medical examiner has ruled Matysek's death an accidental drowning.

Matysek was the third person to die in the event's 23-year history. Longtime race director Chuck Nabit said the others, three years ago and about 18 years ago, were the result of heart attacks.

Nabit said the race is "as safe as humanly possible." He said advanced life support reached Matysek one minute after it was discovered he was in distress.

The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim has brought the Matysek brothers together for more than 20 years. They started as five; the oldest brother, Eugene, died in 1993, having completed two of the races.

Robert grew up swimming with his brothers at Woodlawn Country Club. They all swam in high school and college, Jim said. Robert completed the bay swim 19 times.

This year, the family came to Baltimore on Friday night. Robert and Jim went to an Orioles game.

Robert began the race Saturday in the first wave of swimmers, 15 minutes before two of his brothers and one of his nephews.

He died about 45 minutes later, about 11:40 a.m., when he was one mile into the swim.

To participate in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, swimmers must have open-water experience, organizers say on their website. Nabit said organizers deploy two helicopters, more than 100 boats, 30 kayaks, a four-person dive team and life-support units on both shores and in the water.

"I believe the safety processes we put in place are of exceptional quality," Nabit said.

Louise Flowers, regional aquatics coordinator at the Weinberg YMCA in Baltimore, who has trained swimmers for open water, said they must know the risks involved before participating in such a race. She also recommended safety measures.

"There should be someone out there that can see the swimmers ... the entire time," she said. "It's unsafe if you're out there and no one can see you."

Flowers said safety personnel should be set up every quarter-mile along the race route. Nabit declined to say whether the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim has such a requirement.

Joe Matysek said his family doesn't hold the race accountable for his brother's death, or believe race organizers did anything wrong. "I felt like it was very well-monitored," he said. "I just think it was a tragic accident."

Jim said he saw Robert get pulled out of the water onto a fire boat, but he didn't realize it was his brother and kept swimming.

"We were right there within minutes of when it happened," said Jim. He said Robert "was the healthiest of the four [brothers] remaining. He had no significant health problems at all."

Robert Matysek worked as a chemical engineer at a plant near his home in Mount Pleasant, S.C. He was married to his wife, Patricia, for more than 32 years.

Joe, who lived within a few hours of his brother for more than 20 years, said he was a great uncle to his four sons.

Jim remembers his brother being there for him when he enrolled at Robert's alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.

Robert lived in Pittsburgh at the time, he said, and kept Jim "grounded in family." They had dinner at Robert's house on Sunday nights and he went to all of Jim's swim meets.

The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim gave the brothers a "good reason to come back" to their hometown, Jim said.

Jim was "absolutely shocked" at Robert's death. Because Robert was a strong swimmer, Jim believes he died of a heart attack or a stroke, not drowning.

Robert would have earned a plaque for completing his 20th race.

Jim said Robert loved the "sense of accomplishment" the race gave him.

dmking@baltsun.com