Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

US swimmer's death leaves tough questions in wake

US swimmer's death leaves tough questions in wake

Fran Crippen loved everything about open-water swimming.
During those long hours flailing away in an ocean or lake, the strategy involved learning when to push himself and when to hold back. That feeling of not just taking on his fellow swimmers but nature itself, being at one with the waves and the tides and the currents. And, yes, even the odd elbow and kick that takes place in a tightly contested race.
"I was not a fan," said his sister, 2000 U.S. Olympic swimmer Maddy Crippen. "I dabbled in a couple of races, but my longest event in the pool was like five minutes _ and those races took two hours. It was pretty brutal. You have to be ready to take your lumps."
Fran was always prepared to take his, but no one thought it would cost him his life.
The 26-year-old Crippen died last weekend during a World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates, a horrifying and _ according to his family and friends _ entirely preventable tragedy involving a still-emerging sport that has grown in popularity since it was added to the Olympic program for the first time at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Two separate investigations are under way _ by FINA and USA Swimming _ but there is growing consensus that a lack of adequate oversight and training by organizers in the UAE, combined with a blistering hot day in the desert nation, conspired to take down a popular athlete in the peak of physical condition, a swimmer who had the 2012 London Olympics squarely in his sights.
"No one should die at a swim meet," his sister told The Associated Press in a telephone interview while waiting for her brother's body to arrive back in the United States.
Crippen's funeral was scheduled for Saturday in suburban Philadelphia, a chance for loved ones to begin working through their grief even while they still have so many questions. Some of them might be answered through an autopsy the family had scheduled, though Maddy said she has little doubt how her brother perished.
"He definitely drowned," she said. "He exerted himself, something happened to him and no one was there to pick him out of the water. He drowned because nobody was there."
Indeed, it's undisputed that it took about two hours for rescuers to find Crippen's body out on the triangular, 2-kilometer ocean course located behind a breakwater, an operation that didn't begin until one of his teammates, Alex Meyer, pointed out he was missing. Meyer and other competitors actually dove back in the water to help in the frantic search, but it was too late.
Crippen's coach, Dick Shoulberg, put the blame squarely on FINA for failing to mandate adequate safety measures in a country that doesn't have a wealth of experience hosting major swimming competitions.
"FINA dropped the ball," he told the AP. "They approved this event to be an Olympic event ... but they never took the next step to protect the athletes. When you put a potential medal out there, you're going to have kids chasing it. That's what Fran was doing. But FINA didn't protect the athletes."
Race organizers insist they took all necessary safety measures, including lifeguards, boats and divers. Shoulberg, who wasn't at the meet, said he's been told there weren't enough boats, there weren't any radios aboard the boats to ensure proper communication and that, for some reason, the swimmers weren't even wearing GPS-like devices that help determine their times during the race _ and can make it easier to keep up with everyone, given that competitors often get separated by large distances and it's not always possible to keep an eye on everyone from shore.
"My mission in life is to never see this happen again," Shoulberg said. "We've got to get some answers."
FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said it was too early to speculate on what caused Crippen's death.
"Until we have the results from the task force, we cannot get involved in speculation or allegations," Marculescu told the AP on Friday. "Let them finish and give their position first. Otherwise it's only speculation."
Crippen came from a prominent swimming family in the Philadelphia area. All three of his sisters are top-level competitors, though they preferred to swim at the pool, looking at that little black line on the bottom and knowing they were done when they touched the wall.
Not Fran. He grew up playing water polo, which often is nothing more than wrestling in the water. As he grew older, he realized that open water was the best way to combine his considerable swimming skills with a chance to mix it up with others.
"Fran loved it," Maddy said. "That's the way he was. He was a rough-and-tumble guy."
There's inherent risks with any sport, especially one that takes place in a natural setting. Steve Munatones, who has extensive experience as a championship swimmer, coach and race director, said he knows of at least 14 open-water swimmers who've died since 1999, most of them older competitors who suffer heart attacks or related health problems. There are other dangers as well, including sharks, hazardous surf and tricky currents.
Shoulberg said he's sure that water temperatures for Crippen's race _ 84 degrees F (29 C) at the start, according to organizers; at least several degrees higher, according to several of the swimmers _ combined with an even hotter air temperature and a salt-water course to send him into some sort of medical distress. Several other swimmers suffered from heat-related issues and needed treatment.
"It's more dangerous when you're in hot water, a hot sun and salt water, because it accelerates the dehydration when you have salt in the water," Shoulberg said.
FINA has rules for how cold the water can be for a race, but nothing at the opposite end of the thermometer. Munatones said he knows of very little research that's been done on swimming long distances in warm water, though it's not uncommon for races to be held with temperatures in the mid-80s (mid 20s C).
Crippen had hopes of making the Olympic team for the first time. He won a bronze medal in the 10K at last year's world championships and looked to be one of the favorites heading into London.
Crippen will never get to swim in the Olympics, but his family said he fulfilled all the ideals of an Olympian.
In a message posted on his website, they wrote:
"It was his goal and dream to represent the United States in the Olympic Games and when you looked up the term 'Olympian' it reads, 'Majestic in manner; superior to mundane affairs; surpassing all others in scope and effect.' No other man or woman fits that definition as perfectly as Fran. His life was an Olympic pursuit: Majestic manner, superior to mundane affairs, and surpassing all others in scope and effect. He is an Olympian in our hearts and while he no longer walks next to us, we feel him with us always."
___
AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf in Rome and Will Graves in Louisville, Kemtucy, contributed to this report.