Commentary

Calls for swimming reform are mounting

Updated: November 18, 2010, 6:05 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeAngela Maurer
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty ImagesThere are currently no set rules for the number of floating drink stations in FINA-sanctioned World Cup races.

This Monday night is Oscar night for American swimming as athletes, coaches and the sport's top brass gather in New York City for the annual celebration of accomplishment called the Golden Goggle Awards. Luminaries like Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin will walk the red carpet and honorees will thank long lists of loved ones from the stage.

Monday also will mark almost a month to the day since Fran Crippen drowned in an open-water race in the United Arab Emirates, prompting a huge outpouring of sadness and emphatic calls for reform. There has been a furious amount of behind-the-scenes activity and discussion since Crippen's death, in large part instigated by people within the sport who are infuriated by the circumstances around it.

An investigative panel established by USA Swimming and chaired by former World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound will meet in person for the first time in New York in conjunction with the Golden Goggle event. Also in New York, USA Swimming's board of directors will consider a proposal urging a restructuring of the sport's overall international governance (see inline).

An online petition currently circulating among top open-water swimmers all over the world declares, "for some time, the vast majority of swimmers have been afraid for their safety and health," and sets forth proposals for drastically improved safety standards. Multiple world 10-kilometer champion Thomas Lurz of Germany, who was outspoken in his criticism of race conditions on the day Crippen died, is the first signee.

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus told ESPN.com he is committed to sending a federation staff member with American athletes who want to compete in World Cup races next year -- a first -- and the Crippen family is conducting its own research and lobbying for safety measures to be beefed up immediately.

However, with a scant two months before the 2011 World Cup marathon swimming circuit is slated to begin with races in Brazil and Argentina, there is still no guarantee new standards will be implemented before that time. FINA, swimming's world governing body and the entity that sanctions the professional World Cup series, has launched its own investigation, but has yet to call a meeting of the open-water committee that would logically initiate rules changes. Steven Munatones, the lone U.S. representative on the committee, said he is stunned the group has not convened formally since Crippen's death.

Evidence is mounting that change is desperately needed.

On Oct. 31, the same weekend Crippen was buried in his hometown of Conshohocken, Pa., a memo about the race that cost him his life was sent to FINA officials. It was written by Valerijus Belovas of Lithuania, a member of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee who was the delegate on site.

"Organisation of the competition in Fujairah did not differ at all from what I have been observing for as long as 15 years," Belovas wrote in an e-mail obtained by ESPN.com. "Organisation of other FINA events was even worse ... I would like to emphasize that what happened during the World Cup in Fujairah could happen during any competition. ... We need new specifications, requirements to the organization of safety during competitions and it is namely us who have to do this."

Belovas concluded: "I am very sorry about what has happened and declare that there were no violations of the competition organization applied in our usual practice during the World Cup in Fujairah."

This may, in fact, be true. The web of rules around these races is loosely spun. There are no requirements for a specific number of safety vessels to monitor the athletes or floating feeding stations to ensure they have enough opportunities to hydrate. There is no maximum water temperature and no mandate to use the computerized timing chips that also can serve as head-count devices at some events.

How can this be in what is a high-risk sport that now has the stature of an Olympic event, having debuted in Beijing in 2008? It's not as if this was the first red alert, and it's not as if there haven't been scares at the elite level recently. At the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, it took quick action by assistant referee Rick Walker to save an Australian swimmer's life in the 25-kilometer event.

Walker, head coach at Southern Illinois University, later wrote a chilling account of what transpired when he saw Kate Brookes-Peterson, a double bronze medalist at the 2007 worlds, begin to struggle in choppy conditions late in the race.

"Kate stopped and went vertical while raising her hand indicating stress," Walker later wrote in an official report to FINA. "We had our boat turned in her direction but still had some time to go to get there. I signalled to the Italian rescue craft which had a faster boat to get over to the swimmer. ... This is when Kate went down under water for the second time. When she came back up she gasped for air and flailed her hand around urgently. I then knew we were the only craft that could get to her as we had reacted quicker. I kept my eyes on where she had gone down, now for a third time, and as we came up on that spot her hand was about 2 feet under water. We grabbed her and pulled her up on the side of the boat. She was very distressed and semi-conscious. I am almost certain that she was not coming back up on her own power."

Brookes-Peterson vomited, passed out briefly and was transported to shore by the Italian boat summoned by Walker as he resumed watching the race. Walker pointed out in his report that as a referee, he is supposed to enforce the rules of the competition, not replace a safety vessel. While he was glad to have been in a position to help, Walker underscored the need for an ample number of boats, especially to watch swimmers who become isolated, and better communications devices between boats.

"One single wave could have caused a swimmer to get pushed down and perhaps lost," Walker wrote. "This very well could have gone unnoticed and we could have had a drowning without knowing it. I was counting swimmers after each wave and each break."

Rewriting the rules won't be a simple task. Race organizers have a lot to lose the morning of an event if the water temperature at their venue is deemed a fraction of a degree too high. Any intelligent discussion of upper limits probably should draw on actual research -- but how hard would that be to locate, or to commission? The petition being passed among top open-water swimmers makes the observation that a region's climate, and the time of day, both need to be taken into account when scheduling races. (As a starting point, the athletes are proposing a maximum water temperature of 28 degrees Celsius, or 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit.) Dehydration is more lethal in a sport where athletes disappear from view when they collapse as opposed to crumpling in front of spectators.

As for safety vessels, the swimmers' petition demands that race organizers provide one per athlete. At a number of elite races, volunteers on kayaks and/or paddleboards supplement motorized craft that keep watch on the course. A one-on-one rule used to be enforced at 25-kilometer races; even longer ago, swimmers were required to maintain a distance of three meters from each other. But pack-style swimming is here to stay, and there is a cogent argument that too many boats on the course can also be hazardous.

Still, Santa Barbara Swim Club head coach John Dussliere, who coached 2008 open-water Olympian Mark Warkentin, said the sport should take a stab at formulating those ratios right now.

"We can and we need to," Dussliere said. "Every single area of the sport needs to be rethought. We didn't have this level of athlete years ago. They're not going to adjust their efforts to the conditions, they're just not. The world is at stake for them now."

Dussliere added that he would favor smaller fields competing at permanent World Cup venues, each with safety standards specifically tailored to the individual course and climate -- lake, river, ocean; wind and currents; cold weather and heat -- since no cookie-cutter checklist can possibly apply to all aquatic topography.

"We should have a list of requirements of what's ideal, what's suggested and what's the minimum," he said.

[+] EnlargeOpen water swimming
Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesOne of the rules athletes and coaches are petitioning for: a better ratio of safety vessels to swimmers in open water races.

Race organizers all over the world could learn from the Canadians, who have run tightly monitored, widely praised open-water events at Lac-St.-Jean in Roberval, Quebec, for years, including the 2010 World Championships.

It's clear that stop signs were run in the United Arab Emirates. Seventy athletes competed in last year's 10-kilometer race, held in Sharjah, another emirate in the UAE. FINA open-water delegate Samuel Greetham of Great Britain 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."

And a ticking time bomb. Even if any lessons had been learned from the 2009 race, how could they have been applied when the event was moved without explanation and at the last minute to the harbor in Fujairah, several hours away? Chad Ho of South Africa, one of the emerging stars of the sport, said last week he doesn't think the World Cup should return to the UAE "until they've proven themselves."

Many of the swimmers who will be honored in New York knew and loved Crippen, and his passing will be recognized with a video montage. His youngest sister, Teresa, a junior at the University of Florida, is a nominee for Breakout Performer of the Year and her parents and sisters will be in attendance.

As older sister and 2000 Olympian Maddy put it last week in a speech inducting her brother into his high school sports hall of fame at Germantown Academy in suburban Philadelphia, "In the days, the months and the years ahead, I will ask myself this very same question I posed tonight: 'How would Fran do this, what would Fran say, how would he live?' And it is by asking this question that I will find peace. I know he would continue to live each day with a passion and fervor unmatched by most ... Fran would live, and that's what I should do. And that is what we all should do."

While Crippen's loved ones pick up the pieces, his sport should bring passion and fervor to putting meaningful safety reforms into the fast lane. If that doesn't proceed with the highest sense of urgency, perhaps swimmers shouldn't take the plunge.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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