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Wednesday, December 1, 2010
FINA delays open water swim season

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

International swimming officials have postponed the start of 10-kilometer open water World Cup competition until an internal investigation of American Fran Crippen's death is complete, and the status of the event in the United Arab Emirates where he died is now in limbo.

A news release issued Wednesday by FINA, swimming's world governing body, outlined a new schedule in which 10K events -- the Olympic distance -- will begin in Santos, Brazil on April 17 rather than Jan. 30 to give the investigative panel time to finish its work and forward its conclusions to the federation's leadership.

Crippen
Crippen

Only six of eight original World Cup events are firmly scheduled. The format of a race slated for February in Argentina has been altered and shifted to the separate Grand Prix series, which includes races longer than 10K. The 10K race in the United Arab Emirates still is listed as the final event of the World Cup calendar, with place and date "to be confirmed."

Crippen, 26, one of the top athletes in the sport, drowned near the finish line of the course in Fujairah, UAE, on Oct. 23. His sister Maddy, a former Olympic swimmer, said she remains concerned about an event being held in the UAE, but is glad the circuit will continue -- as long as safety comes first.

"The last thing Fran would want to see is the end of this event he loved," she said in a telephone interview with ESPN.com. "I don't want to see athletes not able to compete."

In a later e-mail, she added: "I just want [FINA] to shift the focus from the organizing committee to the athlete and make [races] safe. Hopefully we can get there before 4/17."

Steve Munatones, the lone American on FINA's Technical Open Water Swimming Committee -- which was not involved in the decision about the calendar change -- said postponing World Cup competition "is the prudent thing to do from a long-term perspective." The downside, he said, is that American swimmers will be deprived of important races in the months leading up to Olympic qualification.

The U.S. open water swimmers who will compete in the 2012 Olympics will be chosen a full year ahead of time. Two men and two women will qualify for the world championships in a race in Ft. Myers, Fla. in June. The top 10 swimmers at worlds in Shanghai will get automatic starting slots in London, and others will be slotted in according to region and time, with a maximum of two per country, and the Olympic men's and women's fields capped at 25 swimmers apiece.

Two top U.S. contenders for Olympic spots, Alex Meyer and Christine Jennings, said the elimination of early season 10K races will complicate their preparation. Jennings said safety is her first priority, but the absence of FINA-sanctioned races from January through March means she may have to find other independent events, such as pro invitationals, to fill in the gap -- and try to satisfy herself that proper protective measures are in place.

Jennings, 23, of Longmont, Colo., the 10K gold medalist in last summer's Pan Pacific Championships, has good reason to be vigilant. She suffered from nausea, headache and blurred vision during the Fujairah race and tried to summon help by waving her arms, but no one came to her aid.

Hyperventilating and on the verge of passing out, she calmed herself and managed to swim the last 500 meters, although she doesn't remember doing it. "I look back today and realize that I had never, ever been so frightened of possibly dying," Jennings said in a written account of her close call.

However, Jennings said she still has not been contacted by the FINA panel assigned to look into Crippen's death.

U.S. national team managing director Lindsay Mintenko, a two-time Olympian in freestyle events, said USA Swimming is searching for alternative events around the world and also compiling a list of questions for race organizers to try to assess safety precautions.

FINA left in place its worldwide Grand Prix series, which includes 10 races ranging from 12 kilometers (roughly 7.5 miles) to 88 kilometers (54.6 miles) and where organizers are required to have one safety boat per swimmer. The logistics of that ratio are generally easier in longer races that feature point-to-point courses and less pack-style swimming.

News of the World Cup calendar changes come the same week that a petition was sent to FIFA leadership, which called for immediate safety improvements in open water swimming and was signed by 59 elite athletes, including five of the six medalists in the 10K event that made its Olympic debut in 2008.

FINA sanctions the World Cup series and is supposed to ensure that local race organizers comply with safety regulations, but in the wake of Crippen's death, many swimmers have said that precautions are inadequate.

Slovenian open water swimmer Rok Kerin, who wrote the petition, said the document was forwarded to FINA by world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Lurz of Germany. Lurz, who won the race where Crippen drowned, has been vocal in his criticism of the conditions and organizers of the event in Fujairah, and put his name atop the list of signatures.

Kerin said he and other swimmers are vehemently opposed to having a race held in the UAE in the fall months because of the extreme temperatures.

The swimmers' petition asks for FINA to take the following measures, among others:

• Set a maximum temperature above which races cannot be held. No such rule currently exists.

• Mandate water and air quality checks and have reports verified by independent health officials.

• Provide one safety boat per swimmer.

• Provide swimmers with watch-style tracking devices.

• Standardize the design of race buoys, feeding stations and finishes.

• Consider weather conditions when setting race start and finish times. FINA officials have made no public commitment to beef up safety measures. Federation spokesman Pedro Adrega told ESPN.com in an e-mail that FINA executives will not comment on the issue until after the conclusion of the Crippen investigation.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.