Limits proposed after Fran Crippen

Updated: April 13, 2011, 6:35 PM ET
Associated Press

Without assistance or cooperation from the world governing body, USA Swimming is pressing forward with proposals that would place limits on water temperatures and require adequate rescue personnel and other safety improvements at open-water meets after the death of American star Fran Crippen.

A five-member panel headed by former International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound released its report Wednesday, though it couldn't address exactly what happened to Crippen during a 10-kilometer race in the United Arab Emirates.

That's because FINA, which governs the sport around the world, denied repeated requests for any information related to Crippen's death.

"We asked the questions and have not been provided with any response whatsoever. Oddly enough, they asked us for some information, which we were happy to give them," Pound said. "It's very disappointing and inexplicable."

Crippen died after suffering from heat exhaustion during a race on Oct. 23. Some swimmers complained that water temperatures were too hot and that organizers didn't have enough safety workers or equipment to keep up with everyone in the race.

The 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia was nearing the finish line when he went under, and it took about two hours to find his body. His coach and others have said the race was moved to a different course on short notice, without providing proper monitoring of the athletes, and shouldn't have been held anyway because of sweltering water temperatures.

The plans recommended by Pound's committee include limits on the minimum and maximum water temperatures, as well as guidelines for communications systems and ensuring that there are standards in place to monitor and reach swimmers who may get into trouble during the grueling events, which are usually held in oceans, lakes or rivers.

FINA has been conducting its own investigation but has yet to issue any recommendations. In fact, SwimNews.com reported last week that an initial report developed by the governing body's own panel of experts was returned with an admonishment that it had gone too far and should be rewritten.

The delay means FINA's report is unlikely to be considered until July at the world swimming championships in Shanghai, the biggest non-Olympic event on the aquatic calendar.

Several calls by The Associated Press to FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu were not returned.

"Our commission was really, really disappointed at the non-response from FINA to our questions," Pound said. "We wanted to get the full report from the FINA official on the spot. We wanted to get the report from the meet director on the spot, as well as a variety of other information. We've simply been refused. Our investigators asked. USA Swimming asked. Our commission asked. We were turned down at each level.

"That's kind of incomprehensible to me," he said.

Crippen's longtime coach, Dick Shoulberg, was even more outraged at FINA's lack of cooperation.

"It's a corrupt organization," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They want to protect their five-star trips in those wonderful hotels."

Pound's commission determined that Crippen was apparently overcome by the heat, lost consciousness and went under, causing him to drown when no one noticed he was missing. While unsure of the circumstances that allowed that to happen, Pound called it an inexcusable breach of safety.

"How was it that within 300 meters of the finish line a swimmer can go under and nobody see him?" he said.

The commission decided to issue its recommendations without assistance from FINA, citing the need to beef up safety before another tragedy occurs. The panel will remain intact until the governing body makes its report, and report back if any other changes need to be made.

"This is very important day for our sport," said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming. "Our awareness level is so much higher."

Among the recommendations in the six-page, nearly 2,000-word report:

• For 5K-and-longer races, the water temperature cannot be above 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius), and the combined water and air temperature can't exceed 145.4 degrees (63 Celsius). The race must also be postponed if the water temperature is below 60.8 degrees (16 Celsius) or the combined water and air readings total less than 86 degrees (30 Celsius).

• A safety officer approved by FINA or USA Swimming must be present at each race. This person would be independent of the organizing committee and guarantee an adequate safety plan and rescue measures. The safety officer could withdraw sanctioning from the event if those standards aren't met, and all competitors would have to be informed of that decision if the race director and referee decided to hold the event anyway.

• A physician with experience at endurance sporting events must attend every race. Also, there must at least one emergency medical technician per 150 participants; an ambulance on site or within a five-minute response time per 250 participants; and a plan for air evacuation if a hospital emergency room is more than a half-hour away.

• FINA, USA Swimming and other national federations should work toward developing an automatic tracking system that works in water, possibly involving sonar or GPS.

USA Swimming acted immediately on two other recommendations from the commission: hiring a full-time staffer to oversee open water and requiring that coaches and support staff accompany the national team to any FINA-sanctioned event. The organization did not send anyone to the meet in which Crippen died.

Bryce Elder, who has experience as both a coach and swimmer as well as being a certified ocean lifeguard, will join the organization on May 23 as the open-water program manager. He will attend all events in which USA Swimming sends its national team.

Wielgus said he expects the other recommendations to be adopted at USA Swimming's next board meeting on May 7. Of course, they would only carry weight in this country.

The first 10K race of the new season is set for Sunday in Santos, Brazil. The only American scheduled to compete is former national team member Mark Warkentin. He will be accompanied by his father, who is also his coach.

A three-member U.S. team is scheduled to compete at the next 10K event in Cancun, Mexico, on April 30. USA Swimming plans to send coaches and other support staff to that meet.

Shoulberg praised the national federation for its commitment to improving safety but said it should put more pressure on FINA to act. He suggested working with other influential swimming nations, such as Australia, Britain and Canada.

"Fran Crippen will never be forgotten," the coach said. "I'm on a mission to make this sport safe."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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