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Fran Crippen Inquiry Considers US Role

Dec 10, 2010  - Craig Lord

Inquiries into the death of Fran Crippen (USA) in a FINA 10km marathon in the United Arab Emirates on October 23 have revealed that the swimmer wrote to the head of his own federation complaining of a lack of financial support and lack of official staff to accompany swimmers on international tour.

In parallel, the advice of Mark Schubert, dismissed from his job as head coach and manager to USA Swimming last month, to appoint Jack Roach as permanent on-the-water partner for swimmers on open-water tour (a choice that many coaches had agreed with given the man's physical capabilities and his skills out on the surf) was not taken up.

The facts of the case are among the worst kept secrets in the investigations process, with coaches and swimmers having exchanged e-mails about Fran Crippen's appeals to his federation and the fact that Schubert's advice was not taken up.

Fran Crippen sent his last appeal to Chuck Wielgus, the head of USA Swimming, nine days before he died in what many in the UAE on the day describe as appalling conditions that were overlooked by FINA and organisers. Water temperatures of more than 30C, surface heat much higher during the noon race, and a shortage of safety procedures, vehicles and staff are among issues being considered by investigators in an independent process in the US and FINA's own internal investigation being conducted with the help of experts.

The latest developments mark the first moment in the investigations when focus on FINA and organisers in the UAE is being matched by public scrutiny of Fran Crippen's own federation in the US. Reports by AP, the Los Angeles Times and others in the past 24 hours come just as the USA swimming team is about to leave for Dubai for the world s/c championships, which get underway on Wednesday this coming week and run for five days. While US anger is clearly targeted at FINA and organisers, questions are being asked about America's own arrangements for its athletes.

Jamie Olsen, a spokeswoman for USA Swimming, told the US media  that neither Wielgus nor national team managing director Lindsay Mintenko were aware of any concrete plans to send a coach to Dubai.

Fran Crippen's e-mail to Wielgus refers to a plan being championed by Schubert that called for an official/coach to be appointed to accompany open water swimmers for their support and protection on international tours. American swimmers often travelled to FINA circuits largely off their own, the latest season before the swimmer's death having cost Fran Crippen thousands of dollars in travel, accommodation and subsistence  from his own pocket.

Schubert told SwimNews that Roach had been the perfect man to do the job that Fran Crippen had told his federation was essential on a circuit where conditions varied widely from event to event, with safety issues often worrisome. "Jack is someone with immense experience, someone with physical attributes and skills and experience in surfing and out on open water that make him the obvious choice  to send along to make sure our swimmers were safe at all times."

When Fran Crippen died in a race in Dubai in which teammate Christine Jennings emerged from to say that she thought she too had been in risk of losing her life, her cries for help having been overlooked or ignored, the US team had just one observer with them, the father of one of the swimmers who could not possibly have kept his eye on all US swimmers at the same time.

Crippen's coach, Dick Shoulberg, believes that US swimmers would not have been allowed to start the Dubai race had Roach been there. "His experience would have told him that it was not safe to swim without making some serious changes to the conditions on the day," he told SwimNews recently. He added: "Fran would be alive today if US swimming had provided more support for Fran and the rest if the team."

Crippen's mail to USA Swimming noted that Americans had competed at four out of seven World Cup events without being accompanied by any support staff. On some occasions coaches had paid their own way to be with swimmers, Bill Rose, coach of the 2008 Olympic team, among them, whle Jack Fabian, father of swimmer Eva Fabian, paid his own way to two events and was with the team on that fateful October 23, though not in an official capacity.

One non-US national-team manager told SwimNews that he had felt "immensely sorry" for Fabian in the UAE, in that it "was impossible for one many to have kept his eye on all the US athletes".

Wielgus has been tireless in his efforts to keep all informed in the US and beyond about progress in the Crippen inquiry. His latest update reads: "On the eve of Team USA’s departure to Dubai to compete at the FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships, I thought it would be an appropriate time to provide you with a short update on the important work that is currently underway related to open water swimming.  While I don’t have many specifics to report, I think it is very important that you at least be made aware that there is a lot of really good work going on very quietly.

"There are currently several important and necessary efforts underway.  USA Swimming has commissioned its own fact-finding investigation and this is well down the road.  We have also established an Open Water Review Commission, a group that is charged with reviewing the investigator’s report and developing recommendations for both USA Swimming and FINA.  I trust you can understand that to be done well these efforts will require time.  The individuals who have been selected to serve with the investigation and with the commission are of the highest caliber and each is exceptionally qualified and committed.

 "Additionally, the National Team folks here at USA Swimming are studying all aspects of our open water plans, programs and services to determine: (a) what can be done in the near-term to better serve athletes; and (b) what needs to be done to ensure an ongoing and long-term commitment to safety and best practices.  Again, these efforts will take time, in part because we will also need to incorporate what is learned from the investigation and what is recommended by the commission into the longer-term plan.

"As an important aside, I think it is important for you to understand that there are hundreds of open water races being held across the world and athletes will continue to attend these events on their own for various reasons.  Similar situations exist in many other individual sports in which athletes travel to other countries not as part of a team or an official delegation from a national governing body such as USA Swimming.  This is something we do not control, nor over which we have any authority.  

"We can, however, assert ourselves by doing what we can through education and communication efforts to make available to athletes information that can assist them in making more informed decisions before they decide to participate in any particular event.  As an example, we have developed a “working list” of questions that relate to open water safety and that could be posed to all race organisers.  We intend to have this list ready to share very soon and it will be sent to all our athletes who compete in open water events, and it will be posted on our website."