Remembering Fran Crippen, Three Years Later

By David Rieder

DURHAM, North Carolina, October 23. SWIMMING has never been the sport that grabs the biggest headlines. Millions of people in the U.S. watched each NFL game this past weekend, but maybe a few hundred know of Ruta Meilutyte’s world record in the 100 breast at the World Cup in Moscow. Sure, NBC jumped on the Michael Phelps bandwagon when he twice sought to win eight gold medals in the Olympics, and nowadays the occasional Missy Franklin story on gives NCAA swimming more coverage than it has ever received. Even though the accomplishments of these superstars have been great for boosting the sport’s profile, these are the exceptions.

For every Franklin, Phelps, or Ryan Lochte that many members of the general population has probably heard of, unimaginable numbers of swimmers continue to grind away towards the same dreams of winning Olympic medals, making it to swim at the college level, or even dropping a few tenths from a best time. Many achieve their goals, but most never reach the level to which they aspire. However, they still give back to the swimming community and to the world, leaving lessons behind that inspire just as much if not more than Missy Franklin pulling off an epic double at the Olympic Games.

Fran Crippen was one such swimmer. Many never heard of Crippen before his death, and these people remember him as the swimmer who died in an open water race. Three years ago today, Crippen jumped in to swim the final leg of the FINA Open Water World Cup in Dubai, but he never made it out. In the wake of that disaster, Crippen’s family and friends pushed to make open water swimming safer, pushing hard for the institution of temperature limits in races to ensure that no athletes would ever again perish in a race. The sport felt the impact of his legacy just a year later when, in the midst of exceptionally warm conditions, many of the favorites did not participate or withdrew from the 25K race at the Worlds, fearing for their own safety.

While Fran Crippen’s death may have brought betterment for the sport, we can’t forget all that he brought to the world before October 23, 2010. Crippen missed out on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in the new open water event after entering the initial U.S. qualifying race as one of the favorites. Still, that didn’t stop him from training through the pool Olympic Trials the following summer. While many assumed his career might end there, he soon found himself back in the pool at Germantown Academy under coach Richard Shoulberg.

Swimming once again for his old high school coach, Crippen embodied hard work and perseverance. At the 2009 World Championships, Crippen swam head-to-head with Thomas Lurz, one of the great open water stars of this generation, through the finish of the men’s 10K. That is, he swam next to Lurz until he crashed into a buoy near the finishing shoot. He dove under the rope and sprinted back into contention and settled for a bronze medal. One year later, he earned the bronze in the 5K at the Open Water World Championships in Canada — just one day after finishing a disappointing fourth in the 10K — and a Twitter video showed Crippen climbing out of the water, grabbing someone’s cell phone, and telling Shoulberg back in Philadelphia of his latest prize.

In 2000, Crippen watched as older sister Maddy qualified for the Olympic team in the 400 IM, and in another notable image, he embraced Maddy before she even exited the pool at the IU Natatorium. In 2010, he got to swim with younger sister Teresa on the Pan Pacs team, and the two earned matching silver medals, Teresa in the 200 fly and Fran in the 10k. He had what Shoulberg, a few months after his death, called a “desire to work hard,” a sentiment that rubbed onto and inspired his young training partner Arthur Frayler, himself a veteran of several big races on the national stage despite having just now entered his sophomore year at Florida. In the months following, another longtime Crippen friend, Alex Meyer, earned a berth in the Olympic 10K race, and he carried Crippen’s memory and legacy with him all the way to London.

Crippen left his mark very literally, in a note posted at the Germantown Academy pool. The note reads: “History was made at Germantown Academy Pool on December 22, 2001. Fran Crippen swam 30,000 yards in 5 hours, 33 minutes, and 5 seconds.” That sign will forever recognize his determination, dedication, and passion to all who walk through those doors and see that powerful laminated sheet of paper.

Three years ago today, I woke up to one of the most startling Facebook posts I have ever seen. Swimming World was reporting that Fran Crippen had died while swimming in an open water race in Dubai. Like most that saw those two sentences, I felt jolted and confused. How could Fran Crippen be dead? After all, we were talking about a sport, where winning brings elation and losing sometimes heartbreak. Death seemed so far removed from a realm where most posts, especially in late October, involved a relatively-meaningless record going down at a World Cup stop somewhere in Europe.

On the day Fran Crippen died, the swimming community around the world stopped in its tracks. Shock set in, just as it did for me, but when that began to pass all who mourned him began to understand the legacy he left. The way by which his life tragically ended guaranteed he would be remembered as the man who made open water swimming safer, but the end of his life also brought into focus just what he left behind; Crippen persevered and drove himself to amazing accomplishments and helped inspire his family and friends both inside and outside of swimming, and thus his legacy in the sport can never be diminished.