Never Forgotten: 13 Years After His Death, Fran Crippen Remembered Fondly By Coach Dick Shoulberg

Fran Crippen 1999 by Peter Bick - 5 (1)
Fran Crippen in 1999. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Today marks 13 years since the death of Fran Crippen in an open-water race in Dubai that should have never taken place due to extremely high water temperatures. Swimming World annually runs this story in which Crippen’s longtime coach, Dick Shoulberg, fondly remembers his protege.

October 23, 2010 changed Dick Shoulberg’s life forever. It was on that day that Fran Crippen tragically lost his life at age 26 during an open water race in hot water off the coast of Dubai.

Now in his 80s, Shoulberg had been the head coach of the swim team at Germantown Academy for over 40 years, leading kids of all ages to be better swimmers and better people. During his long tenure at the same prep school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Shoulberg grew particularly close to the Crippen family, as he coached all four siblings – Maddy, Fran, Claire and Teresa to great success.

Maddy Crippen was the oldest, and was another one in a long line of great 400 IMers to emerge from Shoulberg’s then-Foxcatcher Swim Team. In 2000, she made the Olympic team in the 400 IM, eventually placing fifth in Sydney at the Games. Fran Crippen was there on the deck, and was the first to embrace Maddy after the race.

Dick Shoulberg

Dick Shoulberg in 1997. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It was the result of tireless work and determination to achieve one of the greatest titles any swimmer can have bestowed on their name: Olympian.

“Maddy Crippen knew every 10,000 IM she did in her life,” Shoulberg said. “Every time.”

Maddy had been a competitor, so when her younger brother Fran beat her for the first time, it was “the worst family fight in Crippen family history” according to Shoulberg.

“Maddy knew Fran pulled on the lane line in backstroke,” Shoulberg said. “He pulled on the lane line at Nationals in the finals of the 400 IM! And I watched the lane line go, and I was like, ‘oh my god, Fran!’

Pat Crippen called me that night and said they had the biggest argument in the history of Crippen family. Maddy yelled at Fran for pulling on the lane line and I said ‘that’s it, you will never discuss swimming at my dinner table again! You leave swimming outside!'”

Now at the 13-year mark from Fran’s tragic death, Shoulberg is reminded once again of the horrible event, and he has spent every day of his life since then hoping it never happens again.

“Fran wrote to Chuck Wielgus in August 2010, ‘we need protection in open water swimming. We have no protection and the athletes have no voice. You need to send a representative to every open water race that FINA sponsors because we have to do these races to earn income.'”

Open Water

Fran Crippen – Never Again … a 2015 Swimming World cover … and since then, races under FINA rules have been held in waters over the 31C limit – Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

On October 23, 2010, the water temperature was reported to be between 85 – 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Where were the officials – on boats or water skis – to monitor the swimmers?” Swimming World’s John Lohn, a native of Philadelphia who had covered the entire Crippen family during his career, wrote two days after Fran’s death.

“Surely, someone should have noticed that Crippen went missing. Reports from the UAE indicate that Crippen was noticed to be struggling. Why didn’t an official act? The water temperature was in the 85-88 degree range. Shouldn’t someone have thought: ‘Is it safe to conduct a 10,000-meter swim in these conditions?’

“When Germany’s Thomas Lurz, the race winner and one of the greatest open-water performers in history, says the race should not have been held, it raises eyebrows as to what the officials were thinking the morning of the event.”

“The problem was, open water had a cold water temperature but they never had a hot water temperature,” Shoulberg said. “And the reason was because the people with money, willing to run these venues, were in hot water. So why would we restrict them from a race when they have all the money?”

In the 13 years since Fran Crippen’s death, FINA’s maximum water temperature for races is 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 F), which was less than a degree colder than the water temperature that fateful day in Dubai (31.9 C).

“The US Navy protects their men and women in uniform, and they have charts for what the temperature will be, should be, and the content of salt. Salt creates dehydration. Salt and hot water mix. I sent this to USA Swimming that chart because I had a gentleman whose kids I coached that was an admiral in the Navy and said, ‘here’s the CD.’ It never got past USA Swimming,” Shoulberg said.

“The US Navy cares about men and women in uniform so you can go work on a shift in water, and it’s going to say ‘ok the water temperature will be X and you can go 20 minutes. Water temperature will be Y and you can work all day long. And what’s safe and what’s not safe.’ It’s been my platform to say let’s make open water safe and let’s bring this to the table every time we can. That’s been my charge and I feel very strongly about it.”

Fran Crippen

Maddy and Fran Crippen in 1999. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

USA Swimming has taken the necessary precautions to keep open water swimmers safe when out on the track. Officials and lifeguards are in boats and kayaks on the day of the race, tracking the swimmers, and ready to take action when called. In 2019, Olympians Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell pulled out of an open water race in Qatar out of protest for the expected warm water conditions on race day. USA Swimming endorsed this decision.

“Based on water temperature data and USA Swimming’s recommendations concerning athlete health and safety, National Team athletes Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell have made the decision not to attend the ANOC World Beach Games Qatar 2019.”

USA Swimming has a maximum open water venue temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.45 C), with the meet director of the open water race in charge of checking temperatures two hours before the start of the competition that day.

“Now they have done better things,” Shoulberg says of USA Swimming. “But it should have been done in August 2010 when Fran asked them for support.

Fran Crippen

Fran Crippen in 2001. Photo Courtesy: Bill Collins / Swimming World Archive

“Pat Crippen told me, ‘my husband and I have no fight. We can’t fight. That’s your job.’ So I’ve made it a mission. I’ve gotten a couple things done but not enough. At 81, my voice won’t be heard, but I will always bring it to people.”

Shoulberg firmly believed Fran Crippen could have made the Olympic team in 2012, with a spot up for grabs at the 2011 World Championships.

“When Fran came back in 2008 not making the team. He said to me, ‘I really think I can do something with open water’ so in 2009 we were going to try it. In 2009 he got the bronze medal at Worlds. 2010, he got another bronze medal. He was pretty good! He was on target to be a possible Olympian – but didn’t have that opportunity in 2011.

“In 2007, Mark Schubert asked me to be a coach at the Pan American Games. Fran won the first event – the open water 10K. And the last event, Teresa won the 200 back. That was a pretty good week for the Crippen family!”

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Isabelle Fraser
3 years ago

He was

Stephen Bentley
Stephen Bentley
3 years ago

What a tragedy for all, Rest In Peace young Sir.

3 years ago

Thank you for clarifying. I have heard Fran was a great man!