The Tragedy of Fran Crippen’s Passing

Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer

MEDIA, Pennsylvania, October 25. AT the Pan Pacific Championships in August, Fran Crippen was all smiles. He sat with his United States National Team teammates on deck, rooting for his countrymen. As his youngest sister, Teresa, had the meet of her life and earned a spot to next year’s World Championships in Shanghai, big brother beamed with pride.

Fran Crippen was a swimming champion in his own right, first a standout in the pool for the revered Germantown Academy program of Dick Shoulberg, later for the University of Virginia and finally as an open-water sensation. As successful as he was in his career, the way Fran Crippen carried himself demonstrated how much he cared about others. There was his support of Teresa at Pan Pacs. Ten years earlier, he was the first to embrace his oldest sister, Maddy, after she qualified for the Sydney Olympics. The image is seared in my mind. Fran knelt down on the deck, reached down and shared a big hug with his sibling.

Now, Fran Crippen is gone, all too early at the age of 26. As almost all in the swimming world known, Crippen lost his life this weekend while competing in a 10-kilometer open-water World Cup event in the United Arab Emirates. He never finished the race and his body was found two hours following the conclusion of the competition, after fellow competitors realized Fran had not crossed the finish line. Now, a family mourns – his parents, Peter and Patricia, his sisters, Maddy, Claire and Teresa. And, we are left to ask how this could have happened.

Where were the officials – on boats or water skis – to monitor the swimmers? 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?” After all, several swimmers were treated for heat exhaustion after the completion of the race. One has to wonder how a tragedy like this could have occurred. And, one has to wonder what was running through the mind of Ayman Saad when he made this comment on Sunday: “We are sorry that the guy died but what can we do. This guy was tired and he pushed himself a lot.”

Those words from the Executive Director of the United Arab Emirates Swimming Association are not just callous, but inhumane. A family just lost a son and brother and this is what is stated by a man in a power position? Are you kidding? Has Mr. Saad ever dealt with tragedy before? Does he have any sense of compassion? It appears not.

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. Going forward, you can be sure that FINA, swimming’s international governing body, will put forth heat regulations for races and be measured in its decision to hold competitions in certain conditions. There likely will be better oversight of the race itself, more officials tracking swimmers and whether they are struggling. Guess what? It’s too late.

This tragic story will continue to unfold, and further information will emerge. For now, it is important to celebrate the life of Fran Crippen, taken from him years to soon. We can remember the day he set a National Independent High School record in the 500 freestyle while representing Germantown Academy in the 500 freestyle at the Eastern Interscholastic Championships. We can remember his exploits at UVA, where he was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Swimmer of the Year. We can remember him as a national champion – in the pool and as an open-water swimmer.

More important, we can remember Fran Crippen for not just being a dedicated athlete, but a dedicated teammate and brother. We can remember him for being friendly and upbeat. We can remember that hug he gave Maddy. We can remember his cheering in Irvine for Teresa. We can remember that smile he often wore.