Open water safety issues re-surface

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
4:54
PM ET

Open water safety issues that emerged in the aftermath of Fran Crippen's drowning death almost two years ago are still on the front burner for top U.S. swimmers, and many were angry when they were informed last week they would have to foot at least part of the bill to bring their own coaches to international events.

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus told ESPN.com on Tuesday that the memo sent by the national team staff was premature and the federation's board of directors, which is meeting in Greensboro, N.C. this week, voted Tuesday to allocate sufficient funds to pay for coaches' travel. FINA, the sport's international governing body, has instituted a one-coach-per-athlete requirement at international events of 5 kilometers (3 miles) or longer to help track and feed athletes during races.

"People were understandably upset," Wielgus said. "Things got ahead of themselves, and that memo shouldn't have gone out."

Among those most upset was Crippen's father Pete, who sent a strongly worded email to Wielgus and USA Swimming president Bruce Stratton when he learned what the swimmers had been told.

"Do we have to sacrifice another athlete because USA Swimming does not want to spend the money which is readily available?" Pete Crippen wrote in a letter he forwarded to ESPN.com.

Despite the work of two different commissions charged with investigating Fran Crippen's death and making recommendations to prevent another tragedy, it's fair to say that open water safety reform is still a work in progress.

Water and air temperatures in the 90s on the course in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, contributed to Crippen's death in October 2010. FINA is still awaiting the results of a scientific study to determine how to set a maximum water temperature for open water races. Swimmers from around the world have lobbied for a maximum in the low-to-mid 80s. USA Swimming-sanctioned races now abide by a maximum of 29.45 degrees Celsius, or 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and a heat index maximum of 177.4 degrees that factors in the ambient air temperature. (A minimum temperature of just under 61 degrees was already in place prior to Crippen's death.)

FINA's recommended maximum is 31 degrees Celsius, or 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a recommendation numerous swimmers and observers said was blatantly violated at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai in the 25-kilometer race. The measurement is taken before the start, and in a warm-weather climate would naturally rise as the race goes on. Several top athletes, including 2009 25K world champion and 2012 Olympian Alex Meyer, refused to compete in the longer event.

U.S. swimmers were under the impression that the USA Swimming board of directors was prepared to endorse the FINA maximum for international events, but Wielgus said he doesn't expect any formal action this week and added that the federation wants to see the results of the scientific study.

The coaching issue is not a simple one either. The one-coach/one-athlete rule is a good concept, but college jobs are the backbone of U.S. elite programs, and in practice, many coaches could be hard-pressed to travel to far-flung World Cup and Grand Prix races in South America, Europe and Asia during the NCAA season. That experience is crucial to success at world championships and the Olympics, swimmers and coaches say.

USA Swimming open water program manager Bryce Elser, who comes from a pool swimming and ocean lifeguarding background, travels with the team, but federation
officials have told open water team members that the coach assigned part time to the program, Paul Asmuth, is being let go.

The 10K event was added to the Olympic program in 2008. This summer, USC swimmer Haley Anderson won a silver medal in the women's race, while Meyer finished 10th in the men's race.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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