Open water safety still an issue at worlds


The field for the Olympic 10-kilometer open water event is ultra-select. Just 25 men and 25 women will make the cut for next summer's race in the famous Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park -- and the world championship race off Jinshan Beach near Shanghai is the most direct route for them to qualify.

Each country has a maximum of two entrants in the women's (begins Tuesday) and men's (begins Wednesday) races at worlds. The top 10 finishers automatically qualify for the Olympic race. The rest will have to qualify through other events next spring.

Open water racing this season has been dominated by the debate over safety reforms following Fran Crippen's tragic drowning last October at the World Cup final in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. Three of the four Americans who will compete in the 10K Tuesday were at the race on that terrible day, and each felt the impact in different ways.

Crippen's friend and traveling roommate Alex Meyer led the search for him. Christine Jennings and Eva Fabian suffered in the extreme heat and required medical attention afterward; Jennings actually signaled for help on the course but got no response. Their heartrending personal accounts helped prompt USA Swimming to commission an investigation and adopt new rules for open water events that are probably the strictest in the world.

These athletes have done an admirable job recovering from that trauma and continuing to compete and honor Crippen's memory.

"Fran taught me everything I know about competing internationally," said Fabian, the mighty 5-foot-1 mite with the instantly recognizable, high-cadence stroke who won the national 10K title in choppy conditions last month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I think about him every time I put my feet in the water."

Jennings, who finished second to Fabian to qualify for worlds, said she has relied on her Christian faith to help her process what happened. "It's been a journey -- I learned a lot, reflected on a lot, came out of it with a lot," she said.

Meyer, the men's national champion (runner-up Sean Ryan will be the other U.S. men's representative at worlds), said it still feels strange to go on trips without Crippen. He carries a photo of his friend everywhere he competes, and sometimes visualizes racing with Crippen during his pool training. "Just this morning, I was doing sprint sets across the diving well, and I imagined he was there, just a little bit ahead of me," Meyer said in a recent interview. "I guess he always was."

The class with which these swimmers have conducted themselves only underlines that their national and international governing bodies have unfinished business where safety is concerned.

When FINA, the international federation, selected Shanghai for worlds a couple of years ago, open water was clearly an afterthought. The heat and humidity in that metropolitan area in mid-July could have made conditions as extreme as those that contributed to Crippen's death. The site selection also begged the question of what sense it makes to have open water swimmers qualify in tropical conditions for an event to be held in England.

In response to concerns raised by the Crippen investigation, FINA changed the location and the start time of the races. The open water events (three distances -- 5K, 10K and 25K -- are contested at worlds) will take place at Jinshan Beach, a popular recreational destination less than an hour from central Shanghai that is carpeted with sand imported from other coastal locations and equipped with a filtration system to cleanse the seawater.

Temperatures are a few degrees cooler there, making it more likely to comply with the new water temperature guidelines set by FINA last spring, which recommend a maximum of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit). It could be borderline, however -- so borderline that USA Swimming drew up an amended version of the waiver that national team members are asked to sign before international trips.

The release specifically informs open water swimmers that national team officials may advise them not to compete because of extreme temperatures or other issues, such as poor water or air quality. If they race anyway, they're on their own legally. And the criteria used by USA Swimming officials may be different than FINA's. USA Swimming's independently commissioned investigation also recommended a 31-degree standard, but added an index that takes air temperature into account. Any combination of air and water temperature exceeding 63 degrees has been deemed unsafe.

What's wrong with this picture? It's hard to know where to start.

Top open water swimmers have made it clear they think 31 degrees Celsius is far too high a maximum temperature. A petition signed last winter by numerous elite athletes that called for a 28-degree (82.4 degrees Fahrenheit) ceiling was ignored. With the pace and exertion of this race -- a men's 10K takes roughly two hours -- just a few degrees can affect dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Telling athletes vying for the right to represent their country in a risky sport that their national federation might not have their backs is truly unfortunate. Understandable, if legal counsel advised USA Swimming to do so for liability reasons, but still unfortunate. (Crippen's family has not sued.) Mike Unger, USA Swimming's assistant executive director, said the Amateur Athletic Act bars the federation from pulling an athlete from competition, and "we wanted them to know the risks."

There's little question FINA will go on with the race whatever the thermometer reads; its own new "rule" is nothing more than a recommended temperature level, giving officials a loophole to proceed. And whatever advice the U.S. athletes get, there's little doubt they'll compete rather than walk away from this crucial Olympic qualifying event. Fortunately, USA Swimming has bolstered its support for the open water team, and the delegation at Jinshan Beach includes Meyer's coach (and Harvard coach), Tim Murphy; Fabian's coach and father, Jack Fabian; and a team physician.

A couple of weeks ago, Meyer, Jennings and Fabian said they needed to focus on training rather than stressing out about two things they feel they can't control: the weather and the people who run their sport.

"I don't need to get wrapped up in that right now," Meyer said. "I'd get emotionally involved in the process and that wouldn't be good for me."

Jennings said she was praying for temperate conditions. "We can't fight it at this point," she said. "It sucks. But it's Olympic qualifying and we can't boycott it."

Given the historic data on average summer temperatures in the Shanghai area, FINA's member countries, including the United States, should have lobbied hard to change the location of the open water worlds. There was absolutely no compelling reason for the competition to be held in conjunction with the indoor pool events. In future years, they should be held separately, or the world championship site should be chosen with open water races (and in Olympic years, the Olympic venue) in mind.

Finally, the FINA report on Crippen's death pledged scientific study on the issue of maximum temperature. Nine months after Crippen died, it's time to stop talking and get cracking. And USA Swimming and FINA need to listen to the athletes on the subject of heat. They're the ones putting their bodies into this crucible.

Weather forecasts for Jinshan Beach show Tuesday's low temperatures around 80, meaning they shouldn't be much higher that morning when the swimmers plunge into the ocean. With luck, the climate will cooperate and make race-day heat anxiety moot. Hopefully, the race will be strictly monitored, with eyes on all swimmers at all times and plenty of floating feeding stations for them to rehydrate. But in the future, world-class open water racing shouldn't have to rely on luck and hope.