Open water's dangers


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CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa. -- At the top of the creaking staircase in the century-old home on Eighth Avenue, the front bedroom is quiet.

Spread across it, there are reminders, trappings of what was. A children's book about Geronimo. A little boy's cowboy boots. Collegiate swimming championship rings. Three USA Swimming "Open Water Swimmer of the Year" plaques.

The item that really gets Pat Crippen going is the big bed in the middle of the room. She loves this story. When her son, Fran, decided to move back to this idyllic Philadelphia suburb after a few years of training in Mission Viejo, Calif., she told him he wasn't going to be able to maneuver his king bed up those stairs. But Fran and the movers stubbornly got it done. She hoped that he at least tipped them well.

"A bed fit for a king, Mom," Fran would often say. "Fit for a king."

Mother and son had gotten to that place where, most of the time, they felt more like close friends. Fran liked to call his parents "my roommates," and when he left for a 10-kilometer (about 6.2 miles) open water swimming race in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, in October 2010, he'd planned to return to his family soon enough.

Fran was hell-bent on making the 2012 Olympic team. London was the moment he had been working toward his whole life. Along that journey, he had hinted to his parents that his sport had some issues. Sometimes, they raced in water temperatures that could be too warm under certain circumstances. Sometimes, there wasn't enough supervision of stragglers.

During his four-year open water swimming career, he had never been pulled out of the water due to exhaustion or dehydration, but many others had. Fran felt as if he could push through anything, and he'd mostly proven that.

Fran wasn't one to stay silent when there was something to be said, so one month before the race, he wrote a letter to USA Swimming, putting words to his concerns.

But on Oct. 23, 2010, as that race in Fujairah ended, his teammate, Alex Meyer, noticed that Fran hadn't come in with the rest of the swimmers. A rescue team was sent to look for him. Two hours later, Fran was removed from the water, his 26-year-old body limp.

"Who loses their life at a swim meet?" Pat Crippen asks.

Her boy still lives in the mementos in this room. Pat; her husband, Pete; and their three daughters aren't ready to clear it out just yet.

On the wall, to the left of that king bed, hangs a poster of famed distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Fran had been captivated by Pre's story, how an Olympian and icon in his sport died too young with so much promise.

Like Pre, Fran Crippen was just beginning to find his voice. And certainly, in the controversial world of open water swimming, there would have been much to talk about.

Open water negligence

The Crippen kids grew up in the water. Pete and Pat had a summer home on the Jersey Shore, where Pete had once been a lifeguard. The kids had to be comfortable around water, so they put each of them into a class at the YMCA before their first birthday.

"They always loved the water," Pat said. "There are children who don't love it and are afraid of it, but our kids were never happier than being in the water, around the water, playing in the water."

It was easy to see where this was going. They all swam for their high school and club team in Germantown, Pa., and they'd all swim in college. First there was Maddy, who went to Villanova University and competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the 400-meter individual medley.

Then there was Fran, who attended the University of Virginia and narrowly missed the Olympics a few times over the years. Claire would follow her brother to Virginia, and the youngest, Teresa, would go to the University of Florida.

In 2006, Fran and Teresa had both qualified for the Pan Pacific swimming championships in Victoria, British Columbia. At this event, all of the swimmers were offered a chance to swim the open water event.

Open water races take place in outdoor bodies of water, instead of a pool. It's swimming for tough people, the sport in its purest form. Fran had never swam an open water race, but given his extreme training regimen, he always assumed he could handle it. Plus, there was prize money for the top finishers, and as a young athlete in an Olympic sport, he needed as much financial help as possible. So, he signed up.

Fran finished second, winning $10,000.

"He was really angry he got second," Teresa said.

"I was like, 'Do you think you're gonna do one of those again?' He was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to do a bunch more.' "

It made sense to Fran. Every swimmer's goal is to be an Olympian, and Fran's best event, the 800 meters, was not an Olympic event. Plus, the intricacies of pool racing, like turns and kicking, were never really his thing anyway. Fran decided he was going to plunge into open water full bore.

Pat and Pete didn't do much research on their son's new event. Why would they? He would be in the water, just like he'd always been.

"Never in a million years was there a concern that they would go to a meet and it would not be safe," Pat says.

Fran's physical and mental makeup appeared meant for the rigors of open water. As time went by, he began to enjoy seeing what he could put his body through and still come out of it.

"Fran was learning a mind over matter thing," Pat said.

Open water swimming is regulated by the Federation Internationale de Natation, the international governing body of swimming known as FINA. The sport's top athletes are required to swim all of the races included in each year's FINA series to have a chance at the prize money at the end.

The races are held all over the world on dates set months in advance, so there is no way to control what the water temperature will be on the day of the race. FINA rules state that races can happen at temperatures as high as 87.8 degrees. Many swimmers wish that upper limit was closer to 82.4.

Still, on race day, when all of the swimmers are in the same location, and sponsorship money has already been invested, the event is unlikely to be canceled. Add in the fact that the athletes are competitors, and they are not likely to pull themselves out of an event, no matter the circumstances.

That October day in Fujairah, the water was said to be approaching 90 degrees. The race was the last of the 2010 FINA series, and Fran would have to finish it to get that year's prize. So, he swam.

At nearly five miles in, Fran stopped at his final feeding station and complained that he was feeling thirsty. He kept swimming.

Somewhere between then and the finish line, Fran disappeared Nobody noticed when he went under. Meyer wasn't swimming that day because he'd had an appendectomy the week before, but he was there at the finish line to support his American teammate. When he first asked where Fran was, a race official said that he must have already gone back to the hotel. Meyer feared that wasn't true.

"It was way too hot," Meyer said.

"And there weren't enough lifeguards. It was like 90 degrees. It should not have been run."

Back in Conshohocken, the Crippens assumed that the race had gone fine, and that Fran was about to head to Italy for a vacation with his girlfriend, Caitlin Regan. But they soon found out that their son was not coming home.

"When we learned of Fran's death, we felt certain it was a heart attack," Pete said. "But as far as they could tell, the heart was OK. The autopsy read that he died of exhaustion and drowned.

"I can accept the fact that he might die of heatstroke, or a heart attack, but I can't accept the fact that nobody was there, and he was down two hours before anybody noticed."

At Fran's funeral, his friends from Philadelphia and Virginia and the swimming community convened with his heartbroken family. They were all trying to come to grips with the same thing: That Fran Crippen, who was practically born in the water and lived there blissfully for 26 years, had to die there, too.

Moving on slowly

Alex Meyer does not want to be next. He is in London for the Olympics, knowing that it very well could be Fran Crippen in his place, and he'll swim the open water event Friday in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake with his fallen friend in the back of his mind.

Meyer, 24, is a Harvard graduate and a native of Ithaca, N.Y. Crippen, who would be 28, was like a big brother to him.

"He's been an inspiration to me in life and death, and I think about him all the time," Meyer says.

"Even before his death, he was a big advocate of safety in open water, and that's something I never really thought about until the tragedy. Honestly, it's not anything that an athlete should have to think about."

Meyer has taken up the vocal role that Crippen was ready to fill. After the 2011 world championship 25-kilometer (15.5 mile) race in Shanghai was held in conditions similar to Fran's last race, Meyer spoke out against what he believed was FINA's continued negligence of swimmer safety.

"Fran couldn't finish a 10K," Meyer said.

"Now they're letting people do a 25K? I could go on and on talking about all the things that were appalling and ridiculous. It's like, do you not remember what happened?"

So far, the Crippens and Meyer have had to accept small victories. The day after Fran died, the family started the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation. The foundation's first goal is to promote safety in open water swimming, and, in April of the past two years, they have supported the Crippen Sunset Mile swim at the Open Water Festival in Miromar Lakes, Fla.

The foundation's second goal is to support two swimmers with Olympic ambitions with $12,000-per-year grants. Matt McLean was one of the recipients, and he won a gold medal as a part of the 4x200 freestyle relay team at the London Games.

But, at the international level, it doesn't appear to the Crippen family that Fran's death has made much of an impact.

FINA appointed an independent task force to investigate Crippen's death. Its numerous recommendations included setting a maximum temperature of 82.4, and a minimum temperature of 64.4, as well as considering a safe ratio of air and water temperatures. It also recommended more safety, medical and tracking measures for the swimmers.

"We don't understand why these rules haven't been changed yet," Teresa said.

"They've tried to make steps in the right direction, but they're baby steps. We want them to be ... "

"Giant steps," Pat added.

The Crippens have coped with their loss like any strong family would, holding each other close.

Maddy is about to have her first child, bringing new life into the void. Teresa and Claire, a part of the boomerang generation, have moved home after finishing school, too.

Pat has started doing yoga, and Pete has been golfing nearly every day. He hardly even enjoys the sport, but it's something to do.

"My game sucks," Pete said.

"It gets worse, then it gets a little better and it gets worse again. I really don't care how good I get."

Pete has not watched or attended an open water swimming event since Fran's death. He simply can't do it.

Pat and Teresa have been to the Crippen Mile event each year, only to honor Fran's memory and the mission of the foundation.

They will watch Meyer and the other competitors race Friday from their living room, and, at the end, they'll start counting.

Sure, the Crippens would love to see Meyer swim away with a medal. But they'll be mostly concerned with one simple thing:

That the 25 swimmers who get into the water are able to get out of it.

olympics - olympicsfeatures

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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