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Wednesday, April 13, 2011
FINA's lack of cooperation a bad sign

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

Fran Crippen would have turned 27 this Sunday, April 17. Instead, his family will gather with Crippen's beloved high school coach, Dick Shoulberg, in suburban Philadelphia to celebrate his life and continue to mourn his shocking death last October in a 10-kilometer open-water race.

As luck and fate would have it, Sunday is also the day when the 10K World Cup Marathon circuit sanctioned by FINA, swimming's world governing body, will begin again in Santos, Brazil. The series, originally scheduled to begin in late January, was delayed pending results of FINA's investigation into the circumstances of Crippen's death.

While the racing goes on, the investigation is treading water. FINA has yet to release its own findings, which are apparently the subject of an internal political battle. Even more disturbingly, FINA has stonewalled the concurrent inquiry conducted by outside investigators hired by USA Swimming, refusing to turn over reports or allow FINA officials or local race organizers to be interviewed.

On Wednesday, in a conference call with reporters, the man who chaired USA Swimming's investigative commission called FINA's lack of cooperation "incomprehensible" and "extremely disappointing." And Dick Pound has some authority on the subject with years of experience in global sport as former World Anti-Doping Agency president and International Olympic Committee member. His sentiments were echoed by USA Swimming president Bruce Stratton and executive director Chuck Wielgus.

In other words, six months after Crippen drowned a few hundred meters from the finish line of the final World Cup race of the season in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates -- a victim of heat exhaustion and inadequate on-site safety measures -- the narrative of what happened, why, and who bears responsibility still hasn't been laid out in an official sense. If the current stalemate continues, it may never be.

Several sources with knowledge of FINA's investigation confirmed the independent commission submitted its report to FINA leadership, only to be ordered to rewrite it with a different tone. The report is now slated for consideration at the World Championships in July.

What FINA did do, however, was to quietly post new health and safety regulations for 10K races on its website last week. (The new regulations were drafted by FINA's Technical Open Water Swimming Committee.) There was no public announcement, although the rules were disseminated to national federations.

The silence around this was deafening. Crippen's death drew worldwide coverage and interest. Wouldn't FINA want people to know there was some tangible effort being made to prevent the tragedy from being repeated?

However, there is good, solid news out of all this. Some of FINA's rules changes, along with the recommendations of the Pound Commission and several staffing and policy moves made by USA Swimming in recent months and weeks, represent major progress in keeping open-water swimmers safer in the near future. Others are more debatable. What is indisputable is that open-water event organization has shifted into an indefinite state of high vigilance.

FINA's rules now require any swimmer entering one of its 10K races to be accompanied by a coach. That may seem like a no-brainer, but the fact is that up to now, it wasn't uncommon for swimmers to travel the circuit on their own. (A coach can oversee more than one swimmer.)

This dovetails with USA Swimming's decision to begin sending coaches to open-water events where national team members are competing, a move Crippen lobbied for shortly before his death. USA Swimming also announced the appointment of the first open-water program manager, Bryce Elser, on Wednesday.

Both the FINA rules changes and the USA Swimming commission's recommendations -- the latter still must be reviewed by the federation' s board of directors and implemented by a new committee -- make a good attempt at addressing the issue of how many safety boats and personnel should be on the race course. Both institute a new position of safety delegate, with the authority to call off a race if standards aren't met. The FINA rules say that person will be a FINA delegate, while the Pound Commission felt strongly he or she should be independent.

FINA will also try to limit the potential danger posed by large fields with staggered starts, although some swimmers don't like the idea, saying conditions can change in a matter of minutes and should be the same for everyone.

One of the most glaring issues raised by Crippen's death -- the lack of a maximum water temperature for races -- remains controversial. The new FINA regulations and the Pound Commission recommend a maximum of 31 degrees Celsius or 87.8 Fahrenheit. The U.S. commission also added an equation whereby the combination of air and water temperature could be deemed too high.

But several swimmers said the heat ceiling is too liberal.

"Outrageous," said Alex Meyer, Crippen's friend and fellow swimmer who led the search for him in Fujairah. "Like a lukewarm hot tub."

"Crazy," said Christine Jennings, who had a frightening experience at the same race when she fell ill and tried to summon rescue personnel to no avail. "Even 86 degrees is pushing it. You're able to do it if you prepare well. They have some homework to do."

"Anything over 30 degrees [Celsius] is dangerous," said Rok Kerin, an elite open-water swimmer from Slovenia who wrote and circulated a petition earlier this year asking for drastic safety reforms. He said he will never compete in the United Arab Emirates again. Apparently no one will this season. The event originally slated to be the 10K series final has been removed from the FINA schedule with no explanation.

The 10K series doesn't mesh well with the U.S. national team's itinerary this year. Jennings, Meyer and two other American swimmers will race in a series event in Cancun, Mexico, next month, but the rest of their spring and summer will be devoted to training for the national and world championships, both of which are key Olympic qualifying events.

Beyond those specific races, the bigger question for those who want to make the sport safer is whether to keep digging for the truth of what happened to Crippen or focus their efforts on safety and bureaucratic reform. Shoulberg wants both.

"You've got to keep pushing," he said. "USA Swimming has to be proactive in making sure everyone knows how Fran died and how we can prevent it. Anything less than that is a failure."

Maddy Crippen, Fran's sister, said her parents are still working their way through the grieving process and haven't ruled out any options, legal or otherwise, in the future. She believes her own energy is best spent trying to mold the future through USA Swimming and her brother's eponymous foundation. "We can't change what happened the day Fran died, but we can use it to make changes going forward," she said.

The Pound Commission will remain in place until it receives FINA's investigative report. In an ideal world, some kind of constructive communication between the two would take place before too many more races or empty birthdays go by.

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