Commentary

Trials a tribute, support for Crippens

Updated: June 29, 2012, 11:23 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- No one would have blamed Teresa Crippen if she'd hung up her cap and goggles and never swum another stroke. No one would have been surprised if her parents, Pete and Pat, fixtures at swim meets large and small for the past 20-plus years, had retreated from that world. Everyone would have understood if the entire Crippen clan -- including 2000 Olympian Maddy and her other swimming sister, Claire -- found it too painful to be surrounded by reminders of the brother and son who was the tall, dark light of their lives.

But the Crippens, as down-to-earth and yet remarkable a family as there is, have a few powerful reasons to stay involved. So, less than two years after Fran Crippen's tragic and unnecessary drowning death in an open water race in the United Arab Emirates, they gathered at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials to watch Teresa swim in Friday night's 200-meter butterfly final, where she finished fourth, two slots shy of making the team.

"I've done everything I can over these past 22 years trying to get ready for this race and I left it in the pool," Teresa said. Were it not for the support of her family, her University of Florida team and her prep coach Dick Shoulberg -- who molded all four Crippens into champions -- "I wouldn't have been in the pool the last two years anyway," she added. "This sport's given me a lot, and I'm just thankful for that."

"It's hard not to feel that weight every single day," she said of the personal loss that is so much greater than any competitive result. "I tried to put it behind me for this meet, but it's a weight I'll have to bear the rest of my life."

This is the fifth straight time the Crippens have made this particular trip. It's almost certainly the last. Maddy made her first Olympic trials cut at age 15 and traveled with her parents to Indianapolis in 1996. There has been at least one Crippen sibling in the pool at every trials since. This week, that part of their collective journey will end. Teresa, the youngest of the four, just completed her undergraduate degree and four years of swimming eligibility at the University of Florida. She doesn't plan to compete past this summer.

"I'm excited not to wake up every morning and not have to hop in the pool," she said earlier this month, sitting in the living room of the family's cozy brick house in the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken. "I've put in seven days a week every day since eighth grade. Everybody knows that it's been a long two years and I'm ready for the roller coaster to be over."

If there was a way to diagram the relationships in American swimming, Fran wouldn't have had more than a couple of degrees of separation from most of the athletes and coaches here. He was a magnet and mentor everywhere he went, and he packed a lot into 26 years. Between his prep days under venerable coach Shoulberg at Germantown Academy, his collegiate years at the University of Virginia, his numerous U.S. national team trips, his club affiliation with the Mission Viejo Nadadores and international friendships in open water, Fran touched an enormous number of people in the sport.

The Crippens are here for Teresa, of course, but they are also here because they don't want the bonds Fran formed while he was alive and the issues raised by his passing to fade away. They feel they need to stay out and about because of the foundation they established in his name. It aims to provide financial support for promising athletes trying to break through to the top level, and to promote and push for safety reforms in open water racing through event management and education.

They've also discovered that Fran's extended family is not about to let them go. His girlfriend, Caitlin Regan, has remained close to them. Other old teammates call and visit and stay overnight in the king bed Fran muscled up a narrow staircase to his room a few years ago. Some have invited Pete and Pat to their weddings. Add to that fraternity the dozens of girls the Crippens watched grow up alongside their daughters in the pool. Technically, Pete and Pat may not be swim parents after this Olympics, but they're always going to have a ton of kids in swimming.

"I just think Fran would want us to be there," Pat Crippen said, perched next to her husband on the couch a couple of weeks before trials. "The day we decided on moving forward with this foundation, the UVa boys were here and the GA boys were here and Caitlin and Maddy. I said to them, 'Selfishly, this is a way of keeping you in our lives, too.'"

The effervescent Maddy, who works for an architectural firm in Washington, D.C., is still the family's go-to spokesperson and hands-on contact at the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation. The organization this year awarded its first two grants to athletes the family believed embodied Fran's spirit, based on essays they submitted. One was his former UVa teammate Matt McLean, who made a strong case for a 4x200 Olympic relay spot by finishing fifth in the 200-meter freestyle Wednesday (six swimmers are named). The other was open water swimmer Ashley Twichell, who was edged by fellow U.S. swimmer Haley Anderson in the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Portugal earlier this month.

[+] EnlargeClaire Crippen
Bonnie D. FordClaire Crippen followed in her brother Fran's footsteps, returning to Germantown Academy to serve as Dick Shoulberg's assistant coach.

It was a setback similar to those Fran rebounded from a couple of times in his career, but that wasn't what won Twichell the grant. Here is an excerpt from the essay she submitted:

After finishing the last race of my collegiate career, the 1650-yard freestyle at 2011 NCAA Championships, one of the first thoughts running through my head was "It's not over yet" ... I knew I had more to give, more left to prove. I knew I could go further, and wasn't going to settle for anything less; perhaps more importantly, I was still in love with the sport, and not ready or willing to give it up.

That outlook is more than a platitude to the Crippen family. Pete Crippen's ties to swimming have been strained by losing his son. He can't bring himself to go to open water events. He still helps run the timing board at Germantown Academy meets and finds even that to be hard. But he knows that no one cares more about improving conditions for open water swimmers than he and his family do, so he won't walk away.

"[Fran] would come home and tell us about swimming in a river in China and they couldn't see their hands," Pete said. "If someone goes down in a situation like that, you're not going to find them.

"You go back and process the whole thing, which I do all the time. It didn't hit me until it all happened to Fran how really dangerous this thing is. Thinking back on all the stuff that he had told us and even that I had witnessed ... this really isn't safe and we need to make sure it's safe as much as possible."

Claire has stayed in the game, as well. She also went to Virginia, and returning to the campus where her brother had captained a team and was so well-known cut both ways; but, in the end, the support trumped the difficulty. She finished her career on a high note by winning the 400 individual medley to help the Cavaliers capture a then-fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

Then she followed Fran's footprints down the beach again by returning to Germantown Academy to serve as Shoulberg's assistant coach. It was therapeutic for both of them. "It's been such a gift for me to have her here," Shoulberg said. One of their swimmers, Arthur Frayler, won the 1,500-meter event at the 2011 Pan American Games and will race it at trials Monday -- along with Alex Meyer, Fran's close friend who was at the race where he died and later bore witness to the tragic sequence of events.

Teresa's ability to race was in question earlier this week when she caught a bad stomach bug and had to scratch her first event, the 400 IM. She is also entered in Saturday's 200 backstroke, but may or may not swim it.

At home in Conshohocken before the trials, she admitted she has "teetered" between two emotional poles since Fran's death: Feeling as if swimming doesn't matter in the big picture, and feeling as if swimming well was the best way to honor her brother. She has stabilized somewhere in the middle. Teresa has trained to try to make the Olympic team, but she also made sure she knew where she was going next, either way -- a management internship that is part of a master's degree requirement.

"I always put a lot of pressure on myself knowing that I just didn't ever want to disappoint my siblings," she said. "Of course, I wanted to live up to what they did and do the same things they did, but it was never any pressure from them. I think a lot of that pressure was in my head.

"I enjoy swimming and I've always swum for myself, and this year I've sort of learned to do that again. Yes, if Fran were still here, I have no doubt in my mind he would be in London. But he's not here, and I know that I am supposed to be swimming for myself and not for him, and I know that's what he would want."

Others may feel poignant about seeing the family's aquatic line end here in Omaha, but Pat Crippen said she's thrilled that her baby is happy and looking ahead to something other than a touchpad.

"I think Teresa's very excited about moving into the professional world," Pat said. "It just consumes so much. These kids are not normal kids, and because of that, we're not normal parents.

"It's OK. It's OK to be done."

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.