Commentary

Alex Meyer swimming with a purpose

Updated: July 22, 2012, 1:29 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- As a kid in upstate New York, Alex Meyer imagined jumping off a bridge at the northern end of slender Cayuga Lake and swimming farther than he could see, almost 40 miles south, to his hometown of Ithaca. As a professional open water swimmer, he has raced through the waves that roll onto some of the world's most beautiful beaches. More recently, Meyer, the only American man who will compete in the 10-kilometer event at the 2012 London Olympics, has made Walden Pond -- the watery muse of author Henry David Thoreau -- his training base and sanctuary.

But temperatures are in the low 50s in suburban Boston on this midweek afternoon in early May, too cold to swim outdoors. So as on many other days, Meyer's world shrinks to a 10- by 16-foot tank sitting on the deck at Harvard University's Blodgett Pool. Current flows out of one end, holding him in place as he swims against it. It's called an Endless Pool. At the moment, it looks more like an aquatic torture chamber.

[+] EnlargeAlex Meyer
Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesAlex Meyer will be the only American man to compete in the 10-kilometer event on Aug. 10 at the London Olympics.

Meyer's arms lift, extend, lower and pull with mind-numbing regularity, revealing a trident tattooed on his inner right biceps. The skin on his shoulders and back is flushed pink with exertion. Meyer pops up to take a pull from a protein shake balanced on the rim of the tank, sees a visitor and pauses for a second. "Hi," he said, as the current pushes him backward.

"He's on hour three," said Harvard head coach Tim Murphy, who is wearing jeans, a white polo shirt and an intense, preoccupied expression. He checks a laptop, hustles to the side of the tank and holds a stopwatch overhead to time Meyer's stroke rate -- the increment between each time his right hand strikes the water. Murphy fiddles with the device that controls the speed of the current, hurries over to an easel, picks up a blue marker and scrawls numbers on a dry erase board that is already covered with them.

As the Aug. 10 Olympic race bears down on Meyer, he needs to subject himself to some chop and churn and to swim without stopping -- as he will, all out, for two hours on a rectangular course in the Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park. "If you think about it, walls are an interruption," said Murphy, who was named to the U.S. Olympic team staff after Meyer qualified last summer. "We're teaching his body to adjust to continual changes, to be ready for anything that gets thrown at him."

The sport has thrown a lot at Meyer, who turned 24 in early July. Physically unimposing at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, admittedly clumsy on land and lacking fast-twitch speed, he had one athletic card to play: stamina. Being a miler in the pool gave him a sense of pride. Transferring those skills to open water enabled him to become an Olympian. In between, a shoddily run race cost Meyer his mentor and dear friend in horrifying fashion.

Everywhere Meyer travels, he carries a small, battered picture frame that holds a photo of Fran Crippen, who succumbed to heat exhaustion and drowned in a 10-kilometer World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010. Meyer, the first person to realize Crippen was missing, led fellow swimmers in a search for him and watched helplessly from the shore as Crippen's body was ferried from the water.

Meyer still conjures up Crippen's long-limbed form training alongside him and feels his fierce, funny, generous presence. He has embraced Crippen's family and friends, and they him. He has honored Crippen with his performance, and in one harrowing moment last year, he honored Crippen by refusing to race.

Voluntarily shouldering the hopes of Crippen's loved ones along with his own was a responsibility that made Meyer nervous -- "times a thousand," he said -- before last year's national and world championships. But to reference the old swimming cliché, once he was in the water, Meyer didn't race with a piano on his back. Nor does he feel weighed down now.

"I think he feels like these people he's come to know because of Fran are underneath him, propelling him forward," Meyer's former Harvard teammate Sam Wollner said by phone. "There's nothing more dangerous to the field than someone who's competing for something bigger than himself. I have high hopes that it'll play out the way he wants it to."

Earning a slot in London "just needed to happen," Meyer said over coffee in his basement apartment a few blocks from Harvard Square. "Aside from the fact that I myself wanted to be on the Olympic team, I wanted to make Fran proud, and his family and friends. Right now, it's a huge motivator."

[+] EnlargeAlex Meyer
Courtesy of Alex MeyerEven as a child, Alex Meyer seemed to crave tougher challenges in the pool.

Taking it outdoors

Meyer's brown eyes shine out from childhood photos as though he's thinking about something amusing but wants to keep it to himself. "He did everything early -- walked, talked and read," said his mother, Shawn. "He was intuitive and analytical and just curious." In conversation, he often anticipates where a question is going and begins to answer before it's done.

As much as he relishes being in the chaotic vortex of an open water race, Meyer also is attached to deep, quiet and simple pleasures. He likes composing personal notes on a 1950s-vintage Olympia Super Deluxe typewriter that he acquired on Craigslist. For years, he has made Christmas ornaments for his friends and family, hand-building and painting clay Santas customized for each person -- a swimming Santa for his mother, Shawn; a kayaking Santa for Murphy, who paddles alongside when he's training at Walden.

There's a purity to being outdoors that appeals to Meyer. He did a lot of growing up there. Shawn and Steve Meyer, both college swimmers, immersed Alex and younger brother Sam in the water early and took them on excursions to Lake George, where you can rent an island for the day, swim and cook lunch and pick blueberries. The family water-skied and scuba-dived. Steve, Alex and Sam still take backpacking trips out west.

But Meyer became the athlete he is indoors in the six-lane, 25-yard pool at Ithaca High School, where he began swimming with the varsity team in seventh grade. Lane 1 was "my territory, my own personal dungeon, my own hell that I spent quality time in every day," Meyer said. He tacked a list of time standards to his bedroom wall and checked them off one by one.

Roy Staley, a gruff, animated mentor who began coaching high school and club teams in town in 1968, saw a kid who didn't have interstellar talent but liked to work. Long, punishing sets were an irresistible dare for Meyer. If he was late or forgot to bring some key item to a meet, Staley would assess extra butterfly yardage. At one point, Meyer's tab reached 9,000 yards. Staley told him he could whittle away at it over a few practices, but Meyer insisted on doing it in one session.

Then, as now, Meyer reveled in his identity as an endurance guy. "I don't really care how fast I can swim a 100 free," he said. "What matters is how fast I can swim a 100 free at the end of a mile, and I can do that pretty well." As a 12-year-old fan at the 2000 Olympic trials, Meyer's big goose-bumps moment was seeing Erik Vendt break the American record in the 1,500. Meyer decided that 2008 would be his year.

[+] EnlargeMeyer Crafts
Alex MeyerOne of Alex Meyer's out-of-the-water hobbies: Santa crafts.

Staley cracked the whip, but he knew how to feed kids' dreams, too. He took his teams to a camp in Canada every summer to swim in lakes, convinced that the strength and confidence they built there would help them in the pool. He loved to tell the story of his former swimmer Claire De Boer, who in 1984 became the first woman to swim the 38-mile length of Cayuga Lake.

The idea enchanted Meyer. At 13, he began swimming the 5K at open water nationals in Florida, a boy in a pack of jostling men, loving every minute. At 16, he finished the Tiburon Mile -- a cold-water San Francisco Bay crossing -- in 23:07, 44th in a field of nearly 700 men and women. "He's creative and thoughtful and he liked the dynamics of [open water]. There's always something different going on, and you have to adjust to it," Staley observed.

Meyer won two state titles at 500 yards and wrote his name in pencil on a white-tiled stripe that marks the beginning of the deep end in Lane 1 at IHS. ("I make sure to darken it up every time I'm home," he said.) His freshman year at Harvard was inauspicious; he contracted mononucleosis, broke out in hives and floundered academically. But his tenacity soon became obvious to teammates such as Tommy Gray, who got used to seeing him fall behind early in a race only to outkick everyone in the final 50 or 100 yards.

"It was intimidating; if you didn't build up a lead, he was going to crush you at the end," Gray said. "When you're starting to get tired, he's starting to get stronger. The mile was just not long enough for him."

That was made abundantly clear at the 2008 Olympic trials, where Meyer finished 34th in the 1,500. It was the first season that he hadn't dropped time in his signature event, and he fought tears in the locker room after his heat.

Meyer went on to become an All-American in the mile his senior year, seven months after suffering a compression fracture in his lower back in an Ultimate Frisbee game, and graduated with a degree in human evolutionary biology. But the real shift in his fortunes had already occurred. Meyer was invited to a USA Swimming select camp for open water swimmers in 2009. The 10K had become an Olympic event the year before, and among the attendees was another athlete with unfulfilled ambitions.

[+] Enlarge Fran Crippen and Meyer
Alex MeyerAlex Meyer, right, and Fran Crippen became good friends when they started rooming together on the road for meets in 2009.

A friendship that still endures

Crippen was older and stronger and more seasoned in open water racing, but in Meyer, he'd met his match in determination and whimsy. When they walked into their tiny hotel room for the 2009 world championships in Rome, their first trip as teammates, they flopped onto twin beds that were perhaps a foot apart, looked at each other and spontaneously cracked up. They really never stopped.

At that meet, Crippen won a bronze in the 10K and Meyer was disqualified in the 25K. A year later at the same distances, Crippen finished fourth and Meyer won a world championship.

When Meyer became ill and fell behind the pack on the 10K course at the 2010 Pan Pacific meet, Crippen reversed direction and drafted him to safety, but he also thought nothing of delivering an elbow or yanking on his friend's suit during a race if Meyer was in his way. They roomed together in China and Mexico and Hong Kong. Their shared goals were fully understood but seldom verbalized.

In October 2010, Meyer underwent an emergency appendectomy. Shawn vividly remembers the cascading voice mail messages from Crippen that Alex put on speaker for her:

Just calling to check on you. You better get out of that hospital. I'm not rooming with anyone else. Don't forget -- we've got plans to go to London together.

When Alex said he intended to go to a World Cup in the Middle East later that month, she told him he was crazy. "I have to be there to support Fran, even if I can't race," he told her.

The morning of Oct. 23, Fran's number appeared on Shawn's phone. It was Alex's voice, deeply shaken. His friend was gone, literally before his eyes, leaving him with the detritus of a race -- Crippen's swim bag, his flip-flops, the cap that had washed up on shore near the finish line. Meyer returned to their hotel room, found Crippen's passport for the authorities and finished packing Crippen's luggage to send home with his body. He kept the cap and gave it to Crippen's parents at his funeral.

There was obvious negligence at the race in Fujairah. The absence of a maximum water temperature rule and inadequate safety personnel, medical support, monitoring of swimmers and means of communication were pointedly critiqued by an independent commission convened by USA Swimming, and the federation has since changed its rules to address those issues. FINA, the international governing body, has also made reforms, but many swimmers, including Meyer, say not enough has been done to address their concerns.

In June 2011, Meyer won the 10K national championship and held the framed photo of Crippen on the podium. In July, he went to China for the world championships knowing he had to place in the top 10 to clinch a spot in the Olympics. He finished fourth.

But there was an unfortunate encore yet to come. Sweltering heat in Shanghai cooked the course until conditions approached those that helped lead to Crippen's death. Meyer wanted to defend his 25K title, but as the start approached, he became convinced that racing would be perilous and FINA's new maximum water temperature "recommendation" was being disregarded. He and several other top swimmers withdrew and watched with mounting anger as numerous athletes had to quit or be pulled from the course.

"I was very proud of him that he didn't swim," Gray said. "That's absolutely something he would not have done before Fran."

Meyer's anger is still palpable. "I don't know how you can have a death and put people in a two-and-a-half-times longer race in the exact same conditions less than a year later," he said.

He returned from China with a luxuriant stretch of more than a year to prepare for the Olympics and mapped out a plan with Murphy. Last November, Meyer was named USA Swimming's Breakout Athlete of the Year. He went to Colorado Springs for altitude training. He circled races in South America on his calendar.

And then, in one random moment, everything went off the rails.

One night in mid-January, Meyer bragged to his roommate and another friend that he could ride his bike from his apartment to a convenience store and back in 10 minutes. He sped off and picked up a pint of vanilla ice cream to go with the brownies they had just made. On the way back, standing on the pedals in mid-stroke, his chain popped off. Meyer pitched forward and took the brunt of the impact on his upper torso. X-rays showed he'd broken his collarbone in two places.

"Neither one of us knew if the whole thing just got flushed down the toilet," Murphy said. "When I saw him, I said, 'We're not using this as an excuse.' I had no idea what was in front of us. There's never a dull moment with Alex, whether we're in the water or out."

Meyer underwent surgery and couldn't do a full workout for eight weeks. He felt fit but lacked finishing speed when he raced for the first time in nine months at the 10K national championships in April and came in 10th, 44 seconds behind winner Andrew Gemmell.

One day the following week, after swimming continuously for three hours in the Endless Pool, Meyer retreated to an enclosed concourse behind the stands to do 90 minutes of dry-land training -- demanding sets of squats, lunges, pull-ups and planks. When trainer Tad Sayce told him he was done, Meyer picked up a jump rope and began whipping it under his feet. "Stop," Sayce ordered, and turned away, rolling his eyes. "He doesn't know when workout ends," he said.

It's hard to find a bright side in a broken collarbone, but it may have prevented Meyer from over-training in the year leading up to London. "In October, he was going way too fast mentally," Murphy said. "I worried about him mentally and physically getting stale. This certainly put a brake in there."

When Staley heard about the bike wreck, he didn't fret much. "Alex has a funny way of making things work," the coach said.

'There's something different about him'

Steve Meyer, an anesthesiologist, sees life-and-death situations every day and has trained himself to manage stress on the job. Still, he finds his son's ability to navigate the emotions of the past two years "remarkable."

He casts back in time for an example of Alex's inborn composure. During a camping trip to Wyoming's Wind River Range last summer, Steve and his two sons swam to an island in a lake. It wasn't far -- perhaps 150 meters -- but en route they realized the water was too cold for safety and the temperature was dropping ahead of an oncoming storm. Steve knew hypothermia can strike quickly. He looked at Alex, his anxiety rising. "You have to take care of us," Steve said.

Alex counseled his father and younger brother to swim steadily rather than trying to sprint and risk getting tired. He swam back to shore first and watched them, ready to plunge back in if they needed help. It took them 45 minutes to warm up after they got back to their tent and crawled into their sleeping bags.

"Maybe he's really that calm and matter-of-fact," Steve said. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall of his brain. There's something different about him."

That was apparent to anyone who witnessed the finish of the 25K at the 2010 world championships in Quebec. After more than five-and-a-half hours of racing, Meyer found himself dueling with Italy's Valerio Cleri with 100 meters to go. He was on Cleri's left side, and Cleri was pushing him wide as they approached the final chute. Meyer came to a complete stop, went vertical in the water, calculated the angles, then sprinted past on Cleri's right and won by less than a second. Crippen wrapped him up in a bear hug afterward.

It was a MacGyver-like solution to a seemingly impossible situation. Meyer is not easily boxed in.

The indelible images from the day Crippen died could haunt or emotionally wound a person forever. But Meyer, much as he tries to pick the best line through swells in the ocean, has chosen to keep following the path of that friendship, keeping it alive and dynamic in his life. He has converted lost into found.

"I feel like recently, maybe in the past few months, I've gotten closer to being a little more at peace with it," said Meyer, who has joined the Crippen family for Fran's past two April birthdays and the anniversary of his death. "The thing that makes me feel the best is being back in Philadelphia and being around his family and his buddies. It's always a really good time going there, but it's always the hardest thing in the world to leave. It was all fun and games, and then the last thing I did each time was, I went to the cemetery right before I got back on the road to drive back to Boston. And I couldn't leave. That was tough.

"I feel very passionately about many of the same things Fran did -- obviously the safety thing, promoting the sport, inspiring younger kids. That gives a whole other level of meaning and purpose to my career."

Meyer recently conducted a clinic for kids at his first swim club, the Glens Falls, N.Y. YMCA Gators. "I wasn't a big shot when I was a little kid," he told them. "But I always loved swimming, and I always had a good time doing it and I always wanted to get better. And right now, that's way more important than how fast you are."

Who knows what effect those words could have on a young mind. They might bring a wall tumbling down. And some people swim better without them.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.