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Dale Oen Dies After Cardiac Arrest In US

May 1, 2012  - Craig Lord

Alexander Dale Oen May 21, 1985 - April 30, 2012

Alexander Dale Oen, the Norwegian world 100m breaststroke champion and Olympic silver medallist, has died at the age of 26, in Flagstaff, the swimmer's national federation has confirmed.

Dale Oen, the fastest man ever to race 100m breaststroke in a textile suit and ther first Norwegian to win world and European titles, was in the midst of an altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. 

A Norwegian Swimming Federation statement said that Dale Oen suffered cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest, the most common cause of death in young athletes, "is a deadly heart rhythm disturbance and can be brought on by either a congenital defect or by an electrolyte imbalance in the blood", a medical expert told SwimNews.

This was, said the federation, the saddest day in the history of Norwegian swimming. Dale Oen was three weeks away from celebrating his 27th birthday. FINA, the international federation, issued a statement of condolence (see foot of this article).

Among tributes today was one from British Swimming that included the following from head coach Dennis Pursley: "The international swimming family is small and tightly bonded, so it is always difficult when we lose one of our own. It is especially shocking in the case of a young, promising athlete in the prime of his life. His memory will live with us for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Norwegian federation and Alexander’s family and friends."

Dale Oen once said that he had no fear of death after an incident with South African friend and opponent in swimming, Cameron Van Der Burgh: the pair were on a rubber tube being towed by a boat off the South African coast when a Killer Whale flew out of the water metres away. De Burgh recalled: "It was close to us, and it was huge. I thought, 'this is it'.". Dale Oen smiled and said: "No fear!"

Van der Burgh today tweeted: "To my greatest rival. My greatest friend. My brother in breaststroke. May you rest in peace. One love." He later added: "He passed doing what he loved. For the sport he loved".

Quadruple Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima, one of Dale Oen's main rivals and a swimmer who in London could become the first man ever to win the same swimming title at three Games, added to the tributes when he tweeted: "In shock over the passing of a dear friend and great rival. RIP Alex." He later added: "My tears won't stop. He was a great swimmer. I want to race against him again. That had been motivating me. My heart is left with a big hole".

Daniel Gyurta, world 200m champion and currently preparing in a training camp for the European Championships in Debrecen, was deeply saddened by the news of the death of his opponent and friend. "We were in close connection with Alexander whom I appreciated above all," Gyurta wrote in a message to Swimnews. "He was a true competitor, a great rival in the water and a wonderful friend at poolside. We often watched the races together from the stands and enjoyed every moment we shared. I cannot find the words to emphasise the pain I'm feeling right now. Breaststoke swimming will never be the same again. Rest in peace, Alexander."

Former world record holder Brendan Hansen wrote: "Sad to hear of Dale Oen passing, that infectious smile will forever be missed in the ready room. RIP Alex."

In an interview for the SwimNews In the Arena special, Dale Oen was asked what role parents, family and friends played in his success, he replied: "They play a tremendous role. When I was younger, it was my brother who dragged me up in morning and my friends always get me up when I am down. My parents gave me the opportunity to become a great swimmer. My parents drove me around. 

"We live outside Bergen, it was 60km to the nearest pool. That is 120km driving for one session from eight until I was 16. Had it not been for them, I would not have been here. I try to be as humble, regarding swimming and other athletes. It is really important to me to show that I really appreciate where I am today. Having friends, meeting new people and having a good laugh are all important part of it, not only hard work. You have also to relax and enjoy."

Alex, son of Mona Lillian Dale and Ingolf Oen and younger brother of Robin, tells his own life story here on his website.

Asked to describe the hardest set he had ever done, he replied: "I can think of one set I did in Sierra Nevada: 5 x 150, 100 and 50, off 2mins 30, 2mins and 1min. That was just crazy hard before the Olympic Games. Getting under 1:10 [100] and 31 [50] from the push ... it was really painful in training. But those things are hard, its tight for then and there. 

"The minute I stop, I feel nothing. There is no pain. Each set, I concentrate on each 100 at a time in a set of 100s and do not look at it as 5x100. Each swim is separate and I try to ignore the pain. We have a saying in Norway: don't ask for an easy trick, ask for a strong back."

Dale Oen loved taking photos and relaxing, he said, adding: "I take nature pictures, scenery. I enjoy quality time with the camera in silence. It is a good way to relax after a hard set. I am studying at the Bergen photo school. I am also into veteran cars. I have a 1960 23-window samba VW bus. I am into cars. I am social, I like meeting people. That is the most important stuff. It is good to do something other than swimming."

Dale Oen's death comes little more than a week after the death of Italian footballer Piermario Morosini following a heart attack during a game. Hospital official in Flagstaff have yet to confirm the cause of death and an autopsy is expected to be performed on Dale Oen.

According to the federation, teammates found the 26-year-old at 19.50hrs local time last night. Dale Oen had collapsed in his bathroom after workout and all attempts to resuscitate him failed, team doctors stated. Federation President Per Rune Eknes said Dale Oen had died after suffering cardiac arrest.

Ola Roensen, the team doctor, said he immediately began performing CPR until an ambulance arrived. "Everything was done according to procedure, and we tried everything, so it is immensely sad that we were not able to resuscitate him," said Dr Roensen. "It is hard to accept."

"We're all in shock," said Petter Løvberg, the performance head for Norway. "This is an out-of-the-body experience for the whole team over here. Our thoughts primarily go to his family who have lost Alexander way too early."

Shortly before he died, Dale Oen, a popular presence on the international swim scene, was looking forward to returning home, tweeting: "2 days left of our camp up here in Flagstaff, then its back to the most beautiful city in Norway - Bergen". He loved home. Of late, he had spend little time there, returning to Bergen last month after a 10-day camp in Iceland just three days before leaving for Flagstaff, where things had been going well, the swimmer tweeting: "Flagstaff is going great, things are really going forward."

During his camp in Arizona, Dale Oen also retweeted a favourite quote: ‏"Kites rise highest against the wind - not with it." - Winston Churchill.

On the evening of his world-title victory in Shanghai, Dale Oen, his coach Sondre Solberg and Løvberg spoke to SwimNews about the tragic news of a massacre back home in Norway, the work being undertaken on the way to London 2012 and what they felt they needed to do to "arrive in perfect shape" at the Olympic Games. You can read that interview here. I asked Solberg about their plans to be at their best in London. Before the coach could reply, Dale Oen smiled and said: "Don't tell him too much!"

The fairytale ending of an Olympic crown will no longer be a part of Dale Oen's all-too short story.

Against a backdrop of tragic news and a massacre back home, Dale Oen (NOR) became the first man to break 59sec in a textile suit as he lifted the 100m breaststroke world crown ahead of Fabio Scozzoli (ITA) and Van Der Burgh in Shanghai last July. 

Majestic, technically superb and powerful throughout, Dale Oen finished head and shoulders above the rest, including Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima (JPN) and reigning world champion Brenton Rickard (AUS), the Norwegian's 58.71 victory representing a huge leap in standards. The time fell just 0.13sec shy of Rickard's world mark set in a polyurethane suit back in Rome 2009.

Scozzoli took silver in 59.42, Van Der Burgh bronze in 59.49. No others broke the minute.

Dale Oen used the pain experienced by his country as a result of  bomb and shooting attacks back home in Norway to drive him to victory, though racing with his heart may well have cost him what would have been the first world l/c record in almost 20 months.

The first Norwegian to claim a world swimming title, Dale Oen's 58.71sec came off a phenomenal split of 27.20, 0.47sec inside the pace set by Rickard (AUS) on his way to the 58.58sec world mark of Rome 2009. Asked at the time by SwimNews if he thought that he had to go out so fast in order to have a chance of getting close to the booster suit benchmark, the Norwegian said: "I could have broken the record if I had paced it better. But that swim came from my heart. I was very emotional. I swam for my king, my country and our people who need to feel our love and support."

He raced just three days after attacks that left 77 people dead back home and had lived, with his entourage and the rest of the Norwegian team, through a roller-coaster of emotions since the news broke. 

"I just tried to use what happened back home as fuel and tried to think we just need to push forward. We just need to let everyday life come back. We can't let this guy ruin the future for us," Dale Oen said. "Seeing the flag and hearing the national anthem, it was all coming back and the thoughts of what happened. Even though it's been three or four days now, it's still a shock."

Dale Oen said he tried to push the tragedy to the back of his mind and focus on the race. "I try not to think too much about what's happening back home, but it's impossible," said the 26-year-old winner of Olympic silver in 2008 who was blown off course by a post-Games break and shiny suits in 2009.

After winning, he pointed to the Norwegian flag on his swimming cap in a show of solidarity with his countrymen. "I just tried to symbolise to people back home that we need to stay united and be together in times like these," he said. "Just stand together. Be one. Everyone back home is paralysed by what happened but it was important for me to symbolise that even though I'm here in China, I'm able to feel the same emotions."

The sudden death of athletes is rare in aquatic sports. In swimming, the most recent tragedy before Dale Oen's death was that of Fran Crippen, whose passing had much to do with the unacceptable conditions in which a FINA Marathon swimming world cup race was swum off the coast of Dubai in October 2010. 

Nick Thierry, SwimNews founder, recalled the case of John Glover, of Dartmouth, who died while training at Yale for the 1956 US Olympic Trials. In 2002, Dartmouth College was forced to cut both the men’s and women’s swim teams as a result of the schools financial troubles and forced budgetary cuts. The cutting of the swim teams received national attention after a member placed the team on e-Bay in an effort to raise money for the team. 

After significant lobbying and fundraising by students, alumni, and supporters, both the men’s and women’s teams were reinstated under the John C. Glover Fund for the Support of Swimming and Diving. The fund was named after the all-America swimmer in the class of 1955 at Dartmouth who died at Yale for the 1956 trials, Thierry notes.

Among tributes from swimmers today:

  • Kimberly Vandenberg: R.I.P. Alex ... you will be missed.
  • Daniel Fogg: Tragic news on the death of Alexander Dale Oen. Thoughts go out to his family and friends.
  • Dana Vollmer: Sad News... No words to describe the loss to our sport. My prayers go out to his family RIP Alex Dale Oen 
  • Mandy Loots: Rest in peace
  • Annamay Pierse: Heartbreaking! No words to describe the loss to our sport All my thoughts & prayers go out to his family RIP Alex 
  • Elizabeth Simmonds:  … may he rest in peace and be remembered for everything that he was x
  • Markus Rogan: "You will be remembered for giving Norway hope on one of its darkest days, RIP Alexander Dale Oen." 
  • Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg: "Alexander Dale Oen was a great sportsman for a small country. My thoughts go to his family and friends."
  • Norway's skiing champion Aksel Lund Svindal: "It feels unreal that Alexander Dale Oen is no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and his whole team in Flagstaff."
  • Milorad Cavic: "Rest in peace Alex Dale Oen, you were a true champion, one that I truly admired... My sincere regards to his family and to Norway.
  • Kirsty Coventry: "My thoughts are with Alexander Dale Oen's family. He was an amazing swimmer and loved watching his performance at World Champs last year." 
  • Eamon Sullivan: "RIP my friend, Alexander Dale Oen. One of the best breaststrokers of all time. you will be missed. So so sad." 
  • Keri-Anne Payne: "Such sad news for swimming … My thoughts are with his family." 
  • Roland Schoeman: My thoughts and prayers go out to all of Alex dale Oen’s friends and family. Very sad news to wake up to. Swimming has lost a gentleman
  • Yannick Agnel: So shocked… Rest in peace
  • Amaury Leveaux: sad day for the swimming world. RIP Alex. bad day for the world of swim RIP Alex
  • Ricky Berens: Terrible news in the swimming world. Very sad news. Thoughts and prayers to his family, friends, and teammates.
  • Ranomi Kromowidjojo: Alex…. RIP
  • Jessica Hardy: A man of example, whom the world of swimming will surely miss. RIP Alexander
  • Dorothea Brandt: I can not believe in the articles that say Alexander Dale Oen died. I am shocked! My thoughts and prayers go out to his family & friends.
  • Marieke Guehrer: RIP @alexdaleoen a true champion and wonderful role model. This is the definition of a tragedy. You will be sorely missed.
  • Kathleen Hersey: Thoughts & prayers to Alexander Dale Oen, his friends, family and teammates. The swim community lost a great talent.
  • Rebecca Adlington: So shocked to hear about Alexander Dale Oen passing away. Such a talented swimmer. Was so young. Thoughts are with his friends and family.
  • Dara Torres: So sad to hear about Norway's Alexander Oen who passed at the young age of 26 in flagstaff, AZ. May he RIP...

FINA issued the following statement of condolence on behalf of world swimming today:

FINA was shocked to learn about the sudden death of prestigious swimmer Alexander Dale Oen (NOR), at the age of 26 in a training camp in Flagstaff (Arizona, USA), on April 30, 2012.

Dale Oen has been of the most promising revelations at the 2008 Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in the 100m breaststroke, an event in which he obtained the victory (the first ever for his country) at the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai (CHN). He was therefore one of the most talented swimmers in this stroke and was certainly preparing a brilliant participation at the upcoming Olympic Games in London.

In everyone’s memory is also present his courage in Shanghai when shining in the pool immediately after the sad events that had taken place in Norway. He had given to media and fans an image of a brave and sincere athlete, paying a heartfelt tribute to his compatriots from the pool deck in China. His example had been one of the most vivid moments of those Championships.

FINA shares the mourning of the entire Norwegian swimming community and addresses its most sincere condolences to his family and friends.