Two years later, swimmer Fran Crippen's death appears to be in vain

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Crippen  Dario Lopez-Mills
Dario Lopez-Mills
Crippen

Fran Crippen should still be with us.

He died senselessly, needlessly, shamefully.

And for now, in vain.

Two years removed from the tragic open water race that claimed the American swimmer’s life, the sport has yet to take all the necessary steps to ensure we don’t have another Fran Crippen.

FINA, the governing body that is supposed to oversee the sport of swimming but seems to spend more time worrying about its bottom line, hasn’t ruled definitively on one of the central issues in Crippen’s death.

When it comes to the water temperature, how hot is too hot?

No one seems to know.

That’s astonishing, considering we just passed another grim anniversary. Crippen lost his life during a 10-kilometer race in the United Arab Emirates on Oct. 23, 2010, his body shutting down on a sweltering day, his fate sealed when no one realized he had slipped beneath the surface and drowned.

“Fran was in the perfect storm to die,” says his longtime coach, Dick Shoulberg.

Normally, these sort of tragedies lead to sweeping reforms. It’s no coincidence that Dale Earnhardt was the last driver to die in a NASCAR race. His crash on the final turn of the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked the sport into mandating a device that protects the base of the skull, ordering speedways to cover concrete barriers in foam padding, and developing a tank of a car that keeps the competitors even safer.

In open water, there’s been a lot of foot dragging.

FINA is far behind schedule in determining the minimum and maximum water temperatures that should be allowed for the grueling races, which cover distances ranging up to 25 kilometers. Initially, this information was supposed to be ready by the end of 2011, in plenty of time for the London Olympics. Then, it was to be ready by the end of this year. Now, executive director Cornel Marculescu says the study, being conducted by a New Zealand university, should be completed sometime in 2013.

By then, we’ll be approaching the third anniversary of Crippen’s death.

Even more shameful.

“I would be impressed as all get out if FINA said, ‘Hey, we’re looking at the big picture here. We’re the leader in the world. We need to take the lead on this one for the safety of all athletes around the world,’” says Rick Walker, the swim coach at Southern Illinois University and chairman of USA Swimming’s open water development committee.

“I haven’t seen anything close to that. I have to sit back and wonder why.”

In fairness, FINA has taken steps to improve safety and prevent a repeat of the organizational chaos that undoubtedly played a major role in Crippen’s death. The race in the U.A.E. was moved to a different course on short notice, and from all indications there weren’t nearly enough safety workers, rescue boats or other equipment to keep up with all the swimmers.

But Crippen initially got into trouble because of the heat, and there’s still the very real possibility of that happening again. At the moment, FINA rules appear to be little more than window dressing, setting the maximum water temperature for a race at 31 degrees Celsius – just under 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many swimmers and coaches believe that standard is far too high. USA Swimming, for instance, has set a top end of 84 degrees for events in this country. Open water Olympian Alex Meyer, a close friend of Crippen’s who was on hand the day he died, believes there should actually be several temperature standards, based on the distance of the events.

One has to question why FINA didn’t go with a lower maximum temperature, even if it was erring on the side of caution. When that long-awaited study does come out, the organization can adjust the rules based on the science. There’s no legitimate reason to resist a lower temperature in the meantime.

Unless this is about the almighty dollar.

FINA would likely frown on a temperature standard that makes it more difficult to hold events in, say, the Middle East or China, which are much more eager to dole out cash than so-called traditional swimming nations slogging through tough economic times. Also, any change in the rules might be seen as weakening their defense against a possible lawsuit from Crippen’s family, which recently indicated in a court filing that it might take legal action against both FINA and USA Swimming.

“FINA doesn’t really want to have a rule,” Meyer says. “The problem with pretty much every international sports federation as well as national governing bodies is they run their organizations like a business. We as athletes don’t really see it that way. We kind of look at these people as our protectors, like they’re looking out for us. But the more you’re around them, the more you realize that’s really not true.”

Besides setting a limit that many believe is too high and not even addressing such factors as combined air and water temperature, humidity and cloud coverage, FINA doesn’t appear fully committed to upholding the rules it does have.

At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the 25-k race continued even when the water temperature climbed above the supposed safe point. Ten of the 29 men who started the race dropped out, including defending champion Valerio Cleri of Italy, as did four of the 21 female starters. A top FINA official shrugged off the complaints, saying the 88-degree standard was just a “guideline.”

The rule is now clearer – “the race must be stopped,” the latest FINA update says – but Meyer believes there’s still plenty of wiggle room. He’s heard of safety officials taking multiple temperature readings until they get one that falls within the acceptable range.

Besides, Meyer holds no confidence in the New Zealand study, pointing out that it’s being led by Dr. David Gerrard, the vice chairman of FINA’s own medical committee.

“There’s a huge conflict there,” Meyer says. “Come on, do they really think we’re that dumb?”

In the meantime, let’s not forget the swimmer who started this whole debate.

Crippen dreamed of winning gold in London, but he never got the chance. He was a joy to those who knew him best. So witty. So energetic. So much left to give.

“The pain isn’t as new,” says his sister, Maddy Crippen. “But I still feel it. I miss him. I want him to be here. He was such a big presence.”

He didn’t deserve to die at 26.

He deserves better now.


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