- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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The day Fran Crippen died had the disorienting quality of a mirage for those who loved him. Oceans apart, on the Gulf of Oman shorefront where his lifeless body was lifted from malevolently warm water and at the tidy six-lane, 25-yard pool in suburban Philadelphia where he first learned to be a winner, people tried to grasp what had happened and fell short.
It was unthinkable that Crippen had been lost so close to a finish line, so far from home. With a soldier's haircut and upright bearing, soulful eyes, a broad inclusive smile and a contagious laugh, he was a charismatic ambassador for the growing sport of open-water swimming. It's a discipline that demands superb conditioning, a steely mindset, the occasional sharp elbow, great peripheral vision and vigilance. Crippen, 26, had all of those traits, accompanied by bottomless generosity.
Ten years ago, when his older sister Maddy qualified for the Sydney Olympics in the 400-meter individual medley, Crippen positioned himself at the end of her lane so he could reach down and be the first to embrace her. At his high school and home training base, Germantown Academy, Crippen helped elderly ladies manage the steps of the pool ladder and coaxed preschoolers into bobbing alongside him. At the Pan Pacific Championships last summer, he reversed direction on the course to aid a friend depleted by a stomach bug, drafted him back to safety in his wake, then forged ahead and won the silver medal.
Crippen consistently finished among the leaders in international events, so that same friend, former Harvard swimmer Alex Meyer, sensed something was very wrong Saturday at high noon as he squinted into the blinding glare off the water in Fujairah, the easternmost outpost of the United Arab Emirates, trying to locate swimmer No. 39.
Everyone else had staggered in, including the women, who had started five minutes behind the men on the same 10-kilometer course in the brutal heat blanketing the final World Cup event of the season. Another American swimmer, Christine Jennings, later told Meyer she had stopped during the race, dizzy and vomiting, convinced she couldn't continue. She waved her arms in distress. No one responded, and there were no support boats in sight. She rolled over on her back for a moment, then decided she had no other option but to finish and fought to stay afloat the rest of the way. She was taken straight to a local hospital.
"To think that Fran could have possibly been yelling and screaming and waving and trying to get somebody to come help him just makes me sick," Meyer said by phone Tuesday from his home in Cambridge, Mass.
Meyer was the one who began railing at officials after Crippen went missing and organized other swimmers to search for him. "It wasn't until 45 minutes after the men finished that there were people from the race helping us, and two hours until the rescue divers came," he said. "There was clearly lack of communication, a lack of necessary safety procedures. Really, complete neglect is what it was."
Thousands of miles away, a sense of unease tugged longtime Germantown Academy coach Dick Shoulberg awake before dawn. He had taken his BlackBerry to bed, knowing Crippen would call or text him at 5 a.m. with his result. He received a call from the Fujairah event, from another U.S. swimmer's father, near-incoherent with grief.
Shoulberg has known Fran's parents Pete and Pat since Maddy, now 30, enrolled in one of his clinics as an 8-year-old. He drove to their home preparing to try to comfort them, aware that he was in a total state of shock himself.
"My mind wouldn't engage in this craziness," he said, perched on a stool on the Germantown Academy pool deck two days later with the slightest trace of red rimming his eyes. "I've had former swimmers killed in automobile accidents, and unfortunately I've had former swimmers commit suicide, but I've never had a swimmer drown. It never crossed my mind.
"I walked the trails yesterday where he would run, and I said, 'Where the hell are you? Stop the joke.'"
Reconstructing Crippen's final moments might be an elusive task, but his family and friends are determined to reconstruct the circumstances that allowed him to slip beneath the surface of the calm water unnoticed.
In the hours after the race, organizers insisted the event had been run properly. Crippen's autopsy results have yet to be released, but his family has already said they will have their own medical team examine him before he is buried in his hometown of Conshohocken, Pa., on Saturday.
Both FINA, swimming's international governing body, and USA Swimming, the national federation, have pledged to conduct full investigations. FINA officials are supposed to work with local race organizers to enforce safety standards. Under current FINA rules, there is a minimum water temperature for competitions but no maximum, and there is no specific requirement for a ratio of safety boats to swimmers. Those issues are sure to be subjects of intense debate as the investigations proceed.
But Meyer, Jennings and German swimmer Jan Wolfgarten -- an experienced open-water competitor who finished the race -- have bluntly stated there was an inadequate safety net for athletes in Fujairah.
"So many mistakes can't go by without any consequences," Wolfgarten said. "It's already terrible enough Fran had to lose his life, but at least learn from it."
Crippen himself had been lobbying USA Swimming officials to provide more staffing at faraway open-water events. Maddy, who has the same force of spirit as her brother, said her family intends to make sure that Fran's death results in potentially life-saving changes.
"Once Fran is back in the United States and laid to rest, we're going to brain-dump," she said Monday. "He has a ton of friends that were involved in the race, so we're all going to get together and figure out what happened, and then we're going to figure out how to fix it. That's the goal, and we're going to kick that into action as soon as we all celebrate his life."
In the meantime, like distance swimmers, Crippen's loved ones may have to fight through considerable pain to get to the other side.
Adaptability is key to open-water swimming -- the ability to deal with changing currents, wind, temperature variations, uneven lodging and food and the vagaries of event organization. Swimmers say conditions on the eight-event World Cup circuit, where top prize money for each race is $2,500, can vary wildly from country to country. Meyer and Crippen had roomed together on the road since getting to know each other at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, where Crippen won a bronze medal. They arrived in Dubai last week only to be informed that the race venue had changed and they would need to take a three-hour bus ride to Fujairah.
According to Meyer, the technical meeting held the night before the race -- where swimmers are informed about everything from safety procedures to anti-doping controls -- lasted only five minutes, a fraction of the usual time, and there was a language barrier. The 22-year-old Meyer thought the session was "weird" but admits he has never dwelled much on the infrastructure of World Cup races.
"They all kind of seem like they're thrown together at the last second on a nickel and a dime," he said. "As an athlete, I've never been to a race and been sitting there thinking, 'Are there enough lifeguards, are there enough safety boats, enough and properly equipped ambulances in case something happens to me?' You're more concerned about the task at hand."
No matter what the conditions were, he was always ready to race. He was motivated beyond what words can describe. He was a ferocious competitor. He was the most wonderful man I've ever met.
”-- Swimmer Caitlin Regan, who had been dating Fran Crippen since last year
The racing was set to begin at 10 a.m. and end approximately two hours later with the sun at its apex. Swimmers had found the water steamy the night before when they previewed the triangular course where they would plow through five 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) laps marked by buoys. Meyer, still recovering from a recent appendectomy, decided to withdraw, hoping to feel better in time for a 15-kilometer Grand Prix event in a few days. He and Jack Fabian, a swim coach from New Hampshire whose daughter Eva is the 5-kilometer world champion, constituted the unofficial support crew for the U.S. athletes.
In the air-conditioned tent near the start, Crippen swigged Gatorade and stuffed his suit with packets of protein gel. German swimmers Thomas Lurz, who would eventually win the race, and Wolfgarten had prepared by rising at 7 a.m. and drinking more than a gallon of fluids apiece. But once the race started, those preventive measures seemed futile. The 28-year-old Wolfgarten struggled as his fingers and hands swelled up in water temperatures he put in the high 80s and ambient air that was in the 90s. A number of the 55 men in the field quickly lost contact with the main pack and strung out behind, isolated, like flags on the tail of a kite.
Wolfgarten said he never saw Crippen during the race, but Lurz told him he took note of the American on the third lap. Both Meyer and Wolfgarten also spoke with Fabian, who could not be reached for comment by ESPN.com. The swimmers said Fabian told them he gave Crippen food and fluids at the last feeding station, about 500 yards into the final lap. Crippen told the coach he didn't feel well and couldn't hydrate sufficiently for the conditions.
The two swimmers also agree that they saw only two boats -- one leading the men's race and one leading the women's -- and two Jet Skis patrolling the course. By contrast, at the most recent European championships, Wolfgarten said there were 10 or 15 boats. At other big events, volunteers often paddle alongside the course in kayaks or on surfboards. In another apparent safety lapse, the usual means for counting swimmers -- collecting their credentials as they enter the water -- were not used.
Meyer, waiting near the finish with a FlipCam to film at Crippen's request, felt mounting alarm after the women's race had concluded and he still hadn't located his friend. But the environment of an open-water race is frequently fragmented, and Meyer thought Crippen might have been disqualified or picked up on the course. He approached race officials and inquired about Crippen but got no answer. He asked them to radio the referee; they said they didn't have radios. Finally, Meyer commandeered a Jet Ski and toured the course. "I didn't see him swimming, and that's when I really got freaked," he said.
When Meyer told the swimmers -- all in varying states of exhaustion -- that Crippen was unaccounted for, many of them popped their goggles back into place and re-entered the soup-like water. Wolfgarten searched the sandy bottom on the shallow part of the course with rivals from South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
"Everyone was trying to help, but it was just too late," Wolfgarten said. "It was very mixed feelings. I wanted to help and find him. At one point, I was pretty certain that I was diving for a dead body, and that wasn't easy. That's not the job of a swimmer to go and dive after somebody that way, but we all did it because we had a little faith left."
By Meyer's estimation, professional divers arrived somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours after the men's race had ended, and the swimmers were ordered out of the water. Crippen's body was discovered minutes later, about 500 yards from the finish. Meyer watched the rescue boat approach the shore in what felt like slow motion and caught a glimpse of Crippen lying on his back with one arm flung over his face, his goggles still on.
"I couldn't imagine that would actually happen to Fran," Meyer said. "Of all people, I mean, Fran?"
Even the strongest of young men are not equipped for such sights. As the body was covered and about to be loaded into an ambulance, Meyer snapped and shoved his way through a small crowd to the stretcher.
"I was hysterical and frantic, and I was yelling, 'Fran, can you hear me, buddy? Are you OK, buddy?'" he said. "I pulled the sheet down off his face. His lips were white. The sides of his nose were really white. It was pretty terrible."
Wolfgarten watched from a distance, but Tuesday, his voice was laced with anger when he talked about Crippen's passing.
"It took two hours to find his body," said Wolfgarten, who began competing in open water events five years ago. "I have a lot of trouble with that. I don't want to be the one who's talking bad about FINA, but I think a lot of things could have been done better, in all honesty."
When Wolfgarten heard about Jennings' close call -- which the American swimmer recounted this week to The Washington Post -- his tone grew even harsher: "That's terrible. That should never, ever, ever, ever have happened. They say in the technical meetings, 'If you have trouble, raise your hand, somebody will be there to assist you.' If she raises her hand and nobody's coming, that is definitely 100 percent the problem of the organizers. Why say it if you're not going to do it?"
Meyer is trying to let good memories replace the awful images of last weekend. He keeps watching a FlipCam video of himself and Crippen on a trip a few weeks ago, laughing uncontrollably over something small. But Meyer also finds himself thinking about the time Crippen swam backwards on the course to make sure he was all right. "I just wish I could have been there for him in the same way," Meyer said.
The varsity swimmers at Germantown Academy knew something was amiss when they got a text from Shoulberg canceling Saturday practice. Shoulberg, a self-described benign dictator who started coaching at the prestigious prep school 42 years ago, never scrubs a training session. Inevitably, word of Crippen's death began to spread on the Internet. Sixteen-year-old junior Arthur Frayler, an open-water prodigy mentored by Crippen, arrived at the pool early in the afternoon, joining a few dozen girls and boys huddled on the deck in silence occasionally broken by the sound of weeping.
Forty-six kids showed up for Sunday's optional team practice. Eight or nine boys shared Crippen's usual space, Lane 6, but only after going to a nearby convenience store to buy a cup of coffee, which they placed in the corner where Crippen usually nursed his java. The atmosphere was respectful, workmanlike. Since everyone was in the water, it might have been hard to tell who remained dry-eyed.
A composed Frayler wore his Team USA sweats to school Monday and spoke about Crippen's influence on him, shifting between past and present tense. He said he aims to make the 2012 Olympic team and will dedicate his training to Crippen.
"He always taught me to 'sight', to look at what's going on around you," Frayler said. "You have to notice, OK, maybe the pack will start heading one way; you don't want to just swim behind them not knowing what's going on. You want to see the buoy and decide on your own what's the best path to get there. At Pan Pacs, I saw Fran take off. And I said, 'If Fran's going, I'm going.' If I wouldn't have done that, I wouldn't have finished top-five."
Crippen relished traveling the world. He formed strong bonds as a multiple All-American at the University of Virginia and at the famous Mission Viejo Nadadores swim club in Southern California, where he trained before the 2008 Olympic Trials. But he always returned to Germantown Academy, the nexus of his birth family and his swimming clan. After he missed making the 2008 Olympic team, the worst setback of his career, he told Shoulberg he wanted to coach there for a season. He refused to accept any money, reminding Shoulberg that he and his three sisters all received Division I scholarships thanks to the coach's tough-love nurturing.
"He gave me such a wonderful gift coming back here," Shoulberg said.
Maddy Crippen thinks full-time teaching was where Fran was headed someday. "He made sure I committed myself and lived up to those commitments," she said. "He held himself to a high standard and expected me and my sisters to do the same, and if we didn't, we heard it from him. That's why we always said he'd be a great coach, because he wasn't afraid to yell at you, in a good way."
Last year, Crippen began dating high school friend and fellow swimmer, Villanova graduate Caitlin Regan. The two were supposed to meet in Rome for a vacation after the World Cup. Regan never boarded the plane. This week, like many close to Crippen, she spoke warmly and bravely, seemingly imbued with his fortitude.
Regan described Crippen's passion for helping younger swimmers improve, for his family, and for Sunday brunch, where the couple would split three full plates of pancakes and eggs. She watched in wonderment when Crippen ran the New York City Marathon last fall in under three hours, after training for only a few weeks. When Fran was away, the two talked on iChat, and he would hoist his laptop toward a window so the embedded camera could capture the view.
"No matter what the conditions were, he was always ready to race," Regan said. "He was motivated beyond what words can describe. He was a ferocious competitor. He was the most wonderful man I've ever met."
She wants to understand what happened in Crippen's last swim, but then again, she feels she already has the answer. "I know in my heart that he would never give up," she said, her voice catching. "Deep down, I know he was just trying to finish the race. That's Fran. That's why I love him so much. That's what's keeping me at peace."
A few months ago, at the World Championships in Quebec, Crippen and Eva Fabian took time to talk about the joys of open-water swimming with some teenage Canadian swimmers. The presentation appeared to be over, the kids were clapping and the host coach had leaned over to shake Crippen's hand when he signaled that he wasn't done. He then delivered a soliloquy about sport and relationships.
"Maybe when I'm an old man like Paul Asmuth over there," Crippen concluded, singling out a U.S. coach, "I don't know if I'll remember my races, but I'll remember my friends."
Life didn't grant Fran Crippen the privilege of finding out whether he was right, but in the short time he had, he made himself unforgettable.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.