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Helpless at Sea: Has FINA Changed Since Fran's Death?

Jan 18, 2014  - Adam Sioui

Editors Note: On October 23, 2010, American swimmer Fran Crippen died from drowning in FINA's World Cup open water 10KM race in Fujairah, UAE. Reports of the water temperature that day were as high as 32.5 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit).

As we watch the world's best tennis players faint, cramp, hallucinate, and vomit from temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), swimming cannot forget that FINA has behaved the same way the Australian Open tennis organizers did...they blame the athletes.

In Australia, Dr. Tim Wood, the tennis tournament’s head medical officer told the BBC “We’ve evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions.” He also said that from what he termed a medical perspective, humans had long adapted to exercise in extreme heat. “Whether it is humane or not is a whole other issue.”

Sound familiar? After Fran's drowning death and complaints about the temperature of several races, Dennis Miller, FINA's liaison official for open water swimming called the 88 degrees a “guideline, not a rule,” and added that, “there were obviously a group of athletes that were better prepared than others. The majority of the swimmers finished.”

Back in 2010, Adam Sioui wrote the following piece that was published in SwimNews magazine about Fran's drowning death. It is worth re reading, reflecting and asking FINA what they are doing to protect and empower the world's swimmers.

Helpless at Sea: Has FINA changed at all since the tragic death of Fran Crippen?

Though it’s been around for hundreds of years, open water swimming really took shape over the last decade or so, with the 2008 Summer Olympics being the first to include it in its program. Like many of his peers, Francis “Fran” Crippen had hopes of representing his country at the pinnacle of his sport, but unlike countless others, he was on the verge of actually doing so. Crippen was a well-respected athlete within his circle, and after exhausting his successful career in the pool, he sought a change, and quickly adapted to life outside of line ropes and chlorine. He earned a silver medal in the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in the 10 kilometre open water swim, soon after, a gold medal in the 2007 Pan American Games. In the two years following, his notoriety continued with a bronze in the 2009 World Aquatic Championships, and another silver in the 2010 Pan Pacifics.

Those closest to him would tell us that the Olympics were the next step; it was only a matter of time. If Crippen were still around, perhaps he would tell us the same thing. But, this is not an account of his life and achievements, or what might have been. Rather, it’s one that questions the undertakings of an organization charged with the safety of those under its watch, and the lack of foresight that cost a man and his family dearly.

Late last October, Crippen was competing at the final leg of the Fédération Internationale de Natation’s (FINA) 2010 10-km series in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), having just flown in from Cancun, Mexico where he claimed victory in the penultimate race. The course, like many open water venues is shaped triangularly, with the three sides (750 metres, 750 metres, 500 metres) equaling 2000 metres. Two feeding pontoons were placed, one on each of the 750 m sections. At around 10:00 a.m. fifty one men and twenty six women entered the water, with the eventual men’s winner, Thomas Lurz of Germany finishing at 11:54 a.m. The final entrant came through at 12:26 p.m. Crippen was widely known as a front-runner, meaning he would consistently be near the leaders, if not winning. At around 12:10 p.m., he had still not finished, prompting friend and U.S.A. teammate Alex Meyers to inquire with the organizing officers, who set about a panicked search effort. Eventually, at 1:55 p.m., over two and a half hours after the race completed, Crippen’s body was found several metres under the water, merely 300-m from the finish line. He was still wearing his goggles.

Shortly after the incident, FINA launched an independent group to examine the specifics that led to Crippen’s passing, and to determine in detail what could be done to avoid such an occurrence in the future. If you’re thinking that a task force set out to investigate the company that hired it questionable, you’re not alone. The assembly consisted of Mr. Gunnar Werner, a Swedish non-practicing lawyer; Mr. Harald Vervaecke, a Belgium safety expert; Mr. Antonio Pelliccia, MD, an Italian physician; Dr. Tobie-Lynn Smith, MD, an American physician; Mr. Greg Towle, an Australian open water coach.

What’s most startling is the severe lack of clarity and continuity in the task force’s findings, and the overwhelming ineptitude shared by all FINA officials involved. On many occasions the answers they were given largely differed from one witness to another. Now, I understand recalling details from months prior is the not the easiest charge, but when key members of the event in question cannot corroborate the number of life guard stations (only two, both close to the finish line. None of which were sufficiently equipped, including binoculars to pick out possible distress. Remember, there were seventy-seven swimmers.), or the number of crafts in the water (two jet-skis. Only one rider was an accredited lifeguard. These too were also not prepared with the necessary materials), well, herein lies a problem.

Most disconcerting is the disparity of the water temperature. On the day of the race, it was reported by a FINA technical delegate to be 82-degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius), yet witnesses have gone on record as saying that is not the case. Tom Vangeneugden, a Belgian participant stated, “I am used to train in a pool where the water temperature is 27 ˚C (80.6 ˚F) and even 28 ˚C (82.4 ˚F). When I entered the water in Fujairah, I had the impression I entered in a warm bath and I am absolutely convinced that the water temperature was more like 32-33 ˚C (89.6-91.4 ˚F).” Furthermore, Elena Nembrini, coach of the Swiss team described how USA coach Jack Fabian measured the temperature of the water at the shore, showing her the thermometer with a reading of 90 ˚F (32.5 ˚C).

Month’s after the onset of FINA’s investigation, USA Swimming  the country’s governing body,  took it upon themselves to form their own team, dubbed the ‘Open Water Review Commission.’ The Commission was chaired by Richard Pound, and was joined by Harold Cliff, and Erica Rose, herself a former open water athlete, among others. Its goal was to “review the circumstances surrounding the death of Fran Crippen in order to make recommendations for the improvement of safety protocols, procedures, and precautions for future domestic and international open water competitions.” On April 21st, nearly six months after the death of Crippen, the Commission released their nearly two thousand-word document. This appalling news greeted all on the first page: “Because FINA has declined to provide information as to the circumstances on the day of the race until after it has issued its report, the Commission has not been able to complete a review of the circumstances surrounding Fran Crippen’s death. Requests for information have been made of FINA by the investigators engaged by USA Swimming, by USA Swimming staff and by the Commission. To date, no information has been provided by FINA.”

Some of the Commission’s recommendations included:

A safety officer approved by the responsible federation and independent of the race organizing committee must be present at each race in order to assure that the approved safety plan is implemented and to assure that adequate safety precautions are in place to deal with race day conditions. The safety officer must have authority to withdraw the sanction on race day if adequate safety precautions are not in place.

For 5-km-and-longer races, the water temperature cannot exceed 87.8 ˚F (31 ˚C), and the combined water and air temperature cannot exceed 145.4 ˚F (63 ˚C). The race must also be postponed if the water temperature is below 60.8 ˚F (16 ˚C) or the combined water and air readings total less than 86 ˚F (30 ˚C).

In an unescorted race, there must be sufficient safety craft on the course to very quickly remove an athlete from the water. A ratio of one safety craft for each 20 swimmers is required. This ratio can only be modified with the approval of the sanctioning body (for example, in some races, a swimmer could be rescued directly by shore personnel without the use of a safety craft).

It is strongly recommended that responsible federations work toward a solution of using a tracking device that is able to work in water (for example, sonar or possibly GPS) in order to help track athletes in open water races.

Now, having only witnessed a handful of these races, most of the proposed solutions seem like common sense, especially when dealing with the number of eyes watching the race, or locating athletes in massive, largely uncontained areas. Since the conclusion of the Commission, FINA itself instituted some “guidelines,” where race conditions have to meet certain regulations. Any change is beneficial, as long as it makes an attempt at addressing the issue of how many safety boats and personnel should be on hand. Both FINA and the USA Swimming have initiated a new position of safety delegate, with the authority to end early, or even cancel a race if standards aren't met. FINA wants to stay in house, hiring one of their own, while Pound’s team is pushing for someone independent from all parties.

Of course, thousands of reviews could be written, each one detailing different ways to promote safety, or fail-safes to avoid such a calamity in the future. Actions, like they always do, speak louder than words, and it pains me to say that FINA’s ring hollow. While friends and family will never forget Fran, FINA is apparently trying to, by continually avoiding questions, and giving contradicting facts, attempting to wash away his legacy like a passing tide. Seventy athletes competed in last year's 10 km race, held in Sharjah, another emirate in the UAE. Samuel Greetham, a FINA open-water delegate wrote in his official report that, "Athletes performed in a professional manner even though there were insufficient qualified officials. No safety officer had been appointed and there were not sufficient boats to escort swimmers. Despite this, the event was a success." Clearly a back handed compliment if there ever was one.

At the most recent World Championships, held in Shanghai, China, the event went on as planned with conditions being nearly a carbon copy of those in the UAE. Although the July race got underway at 6:00 a.m., as a way to battle the rising temperatures, the water was still at 87 ˚F when the starting gun went off. Race officials balked at the criticism due to it still being under the suggested safe point of 88 ˚F. Somewhat similar to saying it’s suggested that cigarettes shouldn’t be smoked.

On the final day of the competition, the 25 km event finished as the water topped out at more than 90 ˚F, with ten of the twenty-nine male competitors pulling out; for the women it was four of twenty one. The defending men’s champion Valerio Cleri exited the water at just over four hours stating the water was “too hot and too dangerous” to carry on. “There’s not enough attention on the athletes,” Cleri continued. “There should not have been a race here. The jury was irresponsible.” FINA defended the decision. Dennis Miller, its liaison official for open water swimming, proceeded to bear responsibility on the athletes and their coaches. He called the 88 degrees a “guideline, not a rule,” and added that, “there were obviously a group of athletes that were better prepared than others. The majority of the swimmers finished.”

The word shocking is described as ‘causing indignation; offensive,’ and I can’t think of a more fitting label for not only the impossibly regrettable ending, but more so the deplorable system that continues to fail a man, his family, and his sport. Participants and their coaches have called on change for years, but their legitimate cries have continued to descend on deaf ears. FINA will rely on the fact that only one casualty has befallen their ranks, perhaps suggesting he is merely an outlier, instead of a somber sign of things to come. Yet, the truth remains this: on October 23, 2010, Fran Crippen died. Not by malicious intent, or an act of God. He died because he drowned in a man-made lagoon; in an element he was quite familiar with, but had no business being in.

Editors Note: The Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation was developed by Fran’s family and friends to continue Fran’s legacy. The FCEF empowers athletes who exemplify the principles Fran embodied as they journey to elevate themselves, by providing aid for athletes as well as advocating for safe competitive environments.

The FCEF is a nonprofit created by athletes, for athletes. It is the mission of the FCEF to pay it forward by supporting athletes while they pursue their athletic dreams. The FCEF acts as a central voice for safety in open water swimming, provides financial support through annual grants and encourages the personal development of athletes though our humanitarian exchange program. Our branches work together to provide a full range of support to athletes who are committed to WORK THE DREAM. For more information visit: http://francrippen.org