Veteran triathlete Lance Leopold was looking forward to participating May 1 in the inaugural TryCharleston half Ironman distance triathlon.
So last winter, he rounded up seven triathlon buddies and booked three cabins at the event site, the KOA campground in Mount Pleasant.
He visited the site in December and talked to two of the campground store's employees, who confirmed his fears: Alligators were active in the lake where the event's 1.2-mile swim will take place, the same lake where campers were prohibited from swimming in part because of alligators.
Leopold and his buddies opted for another triathlon in a spring-fed freshwater lake in North Carolina.
"It's just not worth the risk," Leopold said. "One snap of your arm or your leg and it's gone."
Despite Leopold's concerns, race organizers and local alligator experts say there is next to no risk for an alligator attack at the event.
"People have been watching too much TV when it comes to alligators," said Ron Russell, owner of Gator Getter Consultants, who was hired to sweep the lake of any potentially dangerous alligators before the event. "It is perfectly safe for people to swim in that lake. I will guarantee there won't be gator problems."
If Russell removes any alligators, they will have to be killed because the reptiles have a keen homing instinct and will return to the original location without regard to roads, subdivisions or playgrounds.
Sam Chappelear, the wildlife regional coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, said that alligator attacks are rare. For instance, he said, thousands of people water ski and dive in the Cooper River, adjacent to former rice fields that are prime alligator habitat.
Yet it is the few incidents -- such as the attacks on a 77-year-old golfer on Fripp Island last year and on a 59-year snorkeler in 2007, both of which led to severed arms -- that stick in people's minds.
Chappelear dismissed rumors among some triathletes that they weren't competing in TryCharleston because of the gators and that the event would be held during breeding season.
"Breeding season will almost be over and males aren't any more aggressive during breeding season," he said. "They are more vocal but not more aggressive."
Meanwhile, the campground has been fielding phone calls from concerned triathletes in recent weeks.
KOA manager Jeanna Simpson said she has tried to reassure triathletes that it's OK. So far this spring, Simpson has only seen one gator, which was missing a leg, on camp grounds. However, more may be around.
"We have alligators and snakes -- it's the Lowcountry -- but we've never had any problems with them," said Simpson, who has worked at the campground for 12 years. "We only had to remove one alligator years ago and that was because people were feeding it and it became a nuisance."
Simpson says the campground posts "No Swimming" signs at the lake more because of general liability issues, not the gators, and because they'd rather have people use the campground pool.
As of midday Thursday, the TryCharleston half Ironman event, which also features a 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run, had 350 registrants and 240 open spots. The shorter TryCharleston sprint triathlon had 240 registrants.
Jeremy Davis, who runs the triathlon management company Setup Events, said the event is on target with his projections of 450 participants in the half Ironman and 300 in the sprint, which is fairly large by inaugural triathlon standards. He said the cold winter's effect on people training on bikes may have more to do with late sign-ups than fears of alligators.
"You'll always get a handful of people who won't do an ocean swim because of a fear of sharks," he said, "but shark attacks are rare, too, and usually occur when it's a lone surfer on the water."