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SwimNews.com - Craig Lord: Tragic Tale Told By Peers Of Fran Crippen
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Tragic Tale Told By Peers Of Fran Crippen

Oct 25, 2010  - Craig Lord

File updated since original post earlier in the day

As investigations continue into the death of Fran Crippen during a 10km FINA open water race in the UAE on Saturday, swimmers, coaches and officials continue to get in touch with SwimNews to have their side of the story heard. All do so with the intention of providing constructive evidence that will help investigators not only come to the right conclusion but be able to provide the recommendations that would be necessary to make appropriate changes to the FINA rule book should that be deemed necessary.

This is a day when Maddy Crippen, sister of Fran, told the Good Morning America show: "My goal is to talk to everyone who was there and to hear exactly who was there and what safety measures were there. But the one thing that I do know is that in the months leading up to this event my brother had written letters to different organizing committees about safety, the number of people that were there, the doctors that should be there, the support staff and the lack thereof."

This a local blog from UAE, penned by Geoff Pound, contains some useful information, though the water temperatures cited understate what swimmer believe to have been the actual temperature of the surface water they were racing in. (Many thanks to the reader who pointed out the blog).

Below are the testimonies of one swimmer and one official that sum up what is being said by many others. Some words have been adjusted to avoid meaning being lost in translation and to avoid identity of the individuals concerned. The athlete is a world-class athlete who raced in Fujairah but wishes not to be named, as yet, in the interests of allowing official inquiries to take their course. The same applies to the official in question. 

What emerges is truly significant to the inquiries being held and tells us that organisers had been warned of serious concerns over safety - a lack of guide boats and lifeguards - water temperatures and lack of shade before the race in which Fran Crippen lost his life. This kind of evidence must surely form part of an independent inquiry.

THE SWIMMER:

"From my perspective, before racing and before anything happened to Fran, I had a feeling that something terrible was going to happen. The day before the race, we trained at 4.30 or 5pm, which was later in day than the lunchtime race was to be held. I got in the water and remember thinking 'this water is so hot'. I swam about 700m and got out and said to [coach] 'is there a maximum temp in Fina rule'. He said he wasn't aware of it but would find out."

"I said to him that I honestly thought there should be because this water is just too hot. I rang my father and told him that I thought something bad is going to happen.  When we swam in there the day before the race, the thermometer reading in the coolest part of the course, where we started, read 33C. But when we got out on the course there was a wall of heat. You could see the haze shimmering off the water at that part of the course. That's what it was like where they found Fran. I just remember getting out of training saying 'this water is too hot'.

The swimmer then noted that if the pool waters in training back in a home programme get up to 29C all swimmers complain that they cannot cope.

"And what people have not yet picked up on is that we were swimming in salt water out in Dubai. Not only were we out in midday sun in boiling water but we were getting very dehydrated from having salt water in our mouths. I could hardly speak after the race, it was so bad."

Asked if the concerns of swimmers had reached official ears before the fateful race, the swimmer believed that they had. "The technical meeting was held in the hot sun and so many swimmers didn't stay for it because they needed to get out of the hot sun but from what I gather [X] raised several concerns before the race and [x] told me that others had picked up on the heat of the water."

Asked if there was accord among swimmers with the view expressed by Thomas Lurz (GER) that there should be a higher lower temperature limit for races and the introduction of an upper limit, the swimmer told SwimNews: "Yes, definitely. I said that before the race went ahead. As an athlete you don't ever want to be racing when your welfare is compromised.  Open water is quite hard anyway, with tides you have to fight against, jellyish and other things ... but when the temperature is too high or too low, you go into the race with apprehension. You never want to start a race of any magnitude with apprehension in your mind."

The swimmer noted the close-knit nature of open water sports. "Because so few of us do open water, we are all really close. We chat and have dinner together. It's different to pool swimming, where people tend to stay in their teams. It's a real community in open water. Fran was a lovely guy. It makes me so sad and angry to read some comments that he might have taken doping [as a way of explaining why he died]. It is so untrue and disrespectful."

In a conversation with a senior figure in swimming linked to events in the UAE, SwimNews was told that UAE police kept the USA team for questioning for over four hours, during the course of which, the issue of high blood-sugar levels was raised. The source said that one line of questioning asked whether Crippen and one of the other swimmers hospitalised had been drinking. Those gathered were stunned at the very suggestion, according to sources in the UAE.

The swimmer we spoke to today said: "From my personal perspective, when racing, Fran was second in the ranking and there was a quite alot of money at stake for him to finish the race and win prizes for the whole tour. I have been in situations where if I had not been as competitive and driven as I am I would have pulled out of races. You get a niggling at the back of your mind that keeps you going when it might be better to stop."

Did that not highlight the need to have official vigilance of swimmers and appoint officials specifically there for the task of stopping swimmers who looked like they were struggling? "It's a really good point and one that I don't think people have ever thought about before," said the swimmer. "I've been pulled out of a race once but probably should have been pulled out of four or five races for my own good. But for the athlete, you just don't want to fail and that's what it means not to finish."

"We have to learn from this and make our sport the most professional sport it can be and not one where life is at risk, let alone someone losing their life. It was unreal out there."

THE OFFICIAL:

"I believe that FINA's inquiry must be independent. We are talking about a swimmer losing his life. I never thought I would witness anything like that in my lifetime. Not a single swimmer or coach or official out there that day would be happy for FINA to conduct its own inquiry. They would lose all credibility."

"At the technical meeting [attended by FINA representative Valerijus Belovas], among questions raised were safety, water temperature, shading for swimmers. Those concerns were all but swept under the carpet by officials and we were left not knowing where we stood. I felt so sorry for the American coach who had so many swimmers to watch. It should not have been for him to have to do that. Organisers should have been watching every swimmer."

"FINA representatives were at the two other events held in Dubai and [other venue in the Gulf] last year when safety issues were raised. They must have approached this event knowing that safety was an issue of concern. I and others have stood up at meetings before and raised concerns and been shot down in flames."  The official then names representatives of FINA and LEN commissions and described them as "yes men who just say 'yes' to organisers because they want to be on the next trip ... a whole cultural change is needed."

"I have read reports about safety boats. There were no safety boats. The jet skis were for the referee, the assistant referees for men and women. The coast-guard boat had no human life on it until Fran was reported missing and Alex Meyer (USA) raised the alarm after the race. The boat had its curtains drawn throughout the race and there was no sign of life on board." 

The official went on to say that there were "a huge number of issues" that needed resolving in open water, including the out-of-race conditions that swimmers are placed in at some events. While Dubai accommodation was a top-rate hotel, accommodation at a YMCA hostel in New York had been "absolutely disgraceful ... there were drug addicts in the corridors ... but you can bet that FINA officials weren't staying there. There are double standards at play."

He concluded: "I've been shocked about the difference of professionalism in pool swimming compared to open water. It's tragic that it has taken the death of someone to change things but all we can hope is that Fran did not die in vain and that the concerns of many in the sport will be taken seriously by those who run the sport."

A footnote comment to the above: swimmers, coaches and officials are likely to make tales such as the above public over the coming weeks and months. Many are understandably nervous of speaking out in their own names, a fact that reflects badly on the culture prevalent among federations that like to run their affairs as if living life in chamber, even though they are publicly funded bodies that carry responsibility for the health and welfare of their membership. Any federation official wherever in the world found attempting to silence witnesses to events in the UAE, where a swimmer lost his life, should be forced to resign without hesitation.