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Sunday, March 13, 2011
Family, friends, swimmers don’t forget Fran Crippen, fight to make open water safer

By Bonnie D. Ford

As those who loved and admired the late Fran Crippen await the conclusions of two official investigations into his death last October, it's clear they're not sitting still in their quest to make the sport of open water swimming safer.

The commission appointed by USA Swimming and headed by former World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound is expected to make recommendations based on the investigations' results to the federation by the end of this month. Implementation of those proposals will lie with another committee whose recently named members include Crippen's sister, former Olympic swimmer Maddy Crippen; U.S. national team member Alex Meyer, who courageously led a search for his missing friend on race day; veteran coaches John Dussliere (Santa Barbara Swim Club) and Rick Walker (Southern Illinois University); and Steven Munatones, a longtime open water official and member of the Technical Open Water Committee for FINA, the sport's international governing body.

FINA's own separate investigation is still ongoing.

Fran Crippen
Fran Crippen, center, with former Virginia teammates Lee Robertson, left, and Ryan Hurley in 2010.

Munatones also is convening a safety conference in San Francisco March 18-20, funded by U.S. Masters Swimming, that will gather many of the world's foremost experts on the topic. Munatones said he has documented 15 other deaths among non-elite swimmers in open water events in 2010 and hopes the conference will contribute to better organization of races at all levels all over the world.

USA Swimming has committed to hiring a full-time staff member to oversee its open water athletes and ensure there is an American coach or official on site at FINA-sanctioned events to support its swimmers -- a measure Crippen was pushing for before his death, and one that might help prevent another tragedy.

But since many athletes compete at professional events outside the FINA circuits, USA Swimming has now posted a safety checklist for athletes to consult before they take the plunge. It gives an idea of the almost mind-boggling number of variables open water swimmers have to consider.

Still, Maddy Crippen finds herself worrying about whether time is running out to implement adequate safety measures in FINA 10-kilometer events. The start of that series was delayed from late January to mid-April to allow investigators time to come up with specifics, but now the season is, once again, just weeks away.

"Where our family stands is that we don't want open water to die," she said. "We want it to grow and thrive. We don't want to deny people the chance to compete. But we want it to be safe."

FINA at one point announced it would rename the 10K series in honor of Fran Crippen, but Maddy said the family hadn't -- and wouldn't -- give its blessing to that move. She wrote a letter to the international federation asking the name be dropped, and FINA complied.

Of utmost importance to Crippen and her family is the series-ending event not be held again in the United Arab Emirates as was originally announced.

"I don't think the athletes really want to go back, and I don't think it would be sensitive to them to go back," Crippen said. The meet in Dubai, originally listed with a date and time TBA, has been taken off FINA's website.

Swimmers and officials will pay tribute to Crippen in the water during the International Swimming Hall of Fame induction weekend in early May. Hall of Fame president and CEO Bruce Wigo said two professional open water events dubbed "Fran Crippen Safe Swims" will be staged on May 7 off Fort Lauderdale Beach. The 10K race is by invitation only and will feature a small field of U.S. national team open water swimmers and a few international competitors; the mile will be run in heats and is expected to draw some elite pool swimmers, triathletes and masters and age group swimmers. Both will promote best practices in this high-risk sport.

Finally, two of Crippen's former University of Virginia teammates, Lee Robertson and Ryan Hurley, have spearheaded an event called the Crippen Mile to be held in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on June 11, the day after the U.S. championships in the same location, which will double as the selection event for this summer's World Championships in Shanghai.

Robertson, Hurley and Crippen founded a sports events management business, Elevation Sports, that was one of Crippen's passions in the year before he died. Elevation Sports is managing the tribute event, and the Crippen family decided to include "Elevation" in his name of his foundation, as well. A portion of the company's proceeds will go to the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation, which will dedicate its efforts to athlete safety and support.

On a happy note for the Crippen family, Fran's younger sisters Claire and Teresa have both qualified for multiple events at next weekend's NCAA Division I Championships. Claire, a senior at the University of Virginia, helped her team to a fourth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship with her third ACC title in the 400-yard individual medley. Teresa, a junior at the University of Florida, won the 200-yard butterfly at the Southeastern Conference championships.