On October 23, 2010, swimming lost one of its greatest. That day, in the Open Water World Cup finale in the United Arab Emirates, American swimmer Fran Crippen failed to reach the finish line. Crippen passed away during that race, his body found under water hours after the race concluded. In a year filled with both excitement and controversy in the sport of swimming, Crippen’s death topped all lists as the top story of 2010, in the saddest of ways. The tragedy in the UAE in October united the swimming world, especially in the United States, in a push for reform in Open Water competition but also to remember this man who left such a mark on the sport.
A highly-recruited distance swimmer out of Germantown Academy, Crippen came from a prominent family of swimmers, including older sister Maddy, a 2000 Olympian. He attended the University of Virginia, where he swam for four years. After completing his eligibility in 2006, Crippen made the U.S. Pan Pacs team, where he decided on a whim to compete in the 10k Open Water event. Having never competed in the event before, he won silver in that race, behind World Champion Chip Peterson. Suddenly, he saw an opportunity in Open Water, moving to Mission Viejo to train under Bill Rose in an attempt to qualify for the inaugural 10k Olympic race in Beijing. Crippen picked up momentum along the way, winning gold at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. Going into the Olympic year, many expected Crippen to be one of the pioneer marathon swimmers in Beijing.
At the World Championship Trials in October 2007, Crippen needed to finish first or second in order to have a shot at Beijing. Many experts viewed Crippen as a co-favorite, along with Peterson. However, things did not turn out as planned. Mark Warkentin won, on his way to making the Beijing Olympics in the 10k, and Peterson took second. At that point, Crippen returned to Mission Viejo, to train for the pool Olympic Trials in the summer of 2008. Crippen was not favored to make the team in the pool, and he did not.
After the Trials, he moved back to Philadelphia, near his hometown of Conshohocken, and he began coaching at Germantown. Soon enough, he found himself back in the water, swimming under high school coach Richard Shoulberg. Not long after, Crippen competed in the 2009 U.S. Open Water Nationals in Fort Myers, winning the race and making the World Championships Team. Before the 10k race in Rome, I said Crippen was my sentimental favorite. I saw his comeback story as an inspirational one, and I thought it would be amazing if he could nab a medal. However, considering America’s usual lack of strength in Open Water, I viewed it at as a long shot.
Crippen surprised many when he was even with the German favorite Thomas Lurz going into the final stretch. He lost his chance at gold when he hit the buoy marking the finishing chute, going off course for a few moments before a furious sprint won him the bronze medal, behind Lurz and teammate Andrew Gemmell. Despite a protest, Crippen received his medal, and his career took off from there. He defended his National title in June 2010, and at the 2010 Worlds in Roberval, Canada, Crippen took fourth in the 10k race before earning a bronze in the 5k race. Along the way, Crippen racked up significant World Cup points, earning second place in the overall ranking going into the circuit’s final stop. At the 2010 Pan Pacs, he took second to Peterson once again. Interestingly, after that race, he claimed that the result didn’t matter; the opportunity to swim on a National team with sister Teresa, who won silver in the 200 fly at that meet, was enough.
At those Pan Pacs, Crippen fell behind midway through the race. He turned around to assist teammate Alex Meyer, the World Champion in the 25k, when his friend fell ill. Despite numerous lifeguards on the course, Crippen waited until Meyer was safe on shore before continuing the race. Just months later in Dubai, it would be Meyer who noticed Crippen missing, alerting authorities before he jumped on a jet ski himself to search for Crippen.
Crippen leaves behind a multi-faceted legacy, due mostly to the sheer amount of people he touched in his short 26 years. A member of the National Team for several years, he knew well all of its members, and he remained close with a tight-knit group of Virginia swimming alumni. In addition to his coaches and fellow swimmers at Germantown and Mission Viejo, Crippen coached younger swimmers, becoming a huge role model.. Finally, the stories about Crippen and his outstanding results have inspired swim fans, such as me, who never had the honor of meeting him.
Crippen’s life and achievements in the water leave behind a legacy of perseverance. As I mentioned above, he rebounded just a year after missing the Olympic team to win medals on the biggest international stage. His accomplishments in 2009 earned him a nomination for USA Swimming’s Perseverance Award at the Golden Goggles, alongside such pool swimmers as Dana Vollmer. He also won the U.S. Open Water Swimmer of the Year award in 2009 and 2010. Despite the major setbacks along the way, he never let his dream die in his push for the 2012 London Olympics, one that will never be completed.
In the weeks and months before his death, Crippen had campaigned for scrutiny of the subpar safety conditions in many open water races; thus, Crippen serves as a martyr for the reforms which he fought for. Since his death, members of the swimming community across the world have called for change. From Shoulberg to the United States Olympic Committee, people around the world are heckling FINA to make changes to ensure that a tragedy on this level never happens again.
On a more personal level, Crippen left a legacy of friendliness and good-heartedness. Considered by those that knew him even a little bit to be a rare all-around good guy, no one in the sport disliked Crippen, including his competitors. His involvement with swimming went far beyond competing; Crippen genuinely cared about anyone involved in swimming. When Meyer could not complete the race at Pan Pacs, no other swimmer would have taken as much care as Crippen did to ensure Meyer’s safety. In fact, the race would normally have left him behind. That legacy came full circle when it was Meyer searching for Crippen’s body in the United Arab Emirates.
A quote of Crippen’s sums up much of his legacy: “Dreams never die; only the dreamers do.” Crippen had a dream to be an Olympian. He found Open Water as a perfect venue to fulfill that dream. After failing to reach that goal in 2008, he returned to pursue his dream in 2012, before it was cut short with his death. However, Fran Crippen’s death did not kill his dream.
In June 2011, the best Open Water swimmers in America will gather for the World Championship Trials in Fort Myers. Fran Crippen will not be there, but his memory will be. On Friday, June 10, two male and two female swimmers will qualify for the World Championships in Shanghai. The top swimmers in Shanghai will qualify for the Open Water event at the London Olympics. If one or two Americans qualify, they will live Crippen’s dream. Also in Fort Myers, a Crippen Sunset Mile will be swum on June 11 to commemorate Fran and raise funds for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation, established by his family shortly after his death.
Meets around the country have recognized Fran over the past three months, often dedicating the 1650 races to him. At the Minnesota Grand Prix, his Open Water teammates Chloe Sutton and Christine Jennings used body markings to show their support. The two wrote the date of his death (10/23) on their hands and “FC” on their shoulders. At the Tom Dolan Invite in December, Maddy Crippen handed out special awards to the winners of the Fran Crippen Memorial Mile. At the TYR Capital Classic, which I recently attended, competing teams aimed to raise as much money possible for Crippen’s foundation before the meet, donating a prize to the team which raised the most money before swimming the mile in his honor.
Even the pool National team carries Fran’s legacy. When the National team travelled to the United Arab Emirates, they brought Fran’s memory with them, with the letters “FC” embroidered on all of their equipment and clothing. The entire team, including Fran’s sister Teresa, a member of this summer’s World Championship Team and an Olympic hopeful for 2012, continue to live his Olympic dream in the run-up to 2012. That dream will forever live on and stand in his memory.
I regret that I could never meet Fran Crippen in person. However, I do have a small connection to him; my coach swam with Crippen at the University of Virginia, and many ex-Cavaliers stayed connected over the years after college. On the day of Fran’s death, he learned of the tragic news hours before any news outlet broke the story (which was how I learned). In Fran’s memory, my coach put Fran’s quote on the back of our team t-shirts: “Dreams never die; only the dreamers do.”
Recently, a mother of a swimmer on our team was at Moe’s when she noticed a woman looking closely at the quote on the back of her team t-shirt. Eventually, the woman asked about the shirt and the quote. The mother wrote in an email, “She then said that she had noticed the quote on the back of the shirt and said that she was from the same hometown as Fran Crippen. She knew him and his whole family and swam with him and family when she was younger. So I told her that you (my coach) swam with him at UVa. She said that she never expected to ever see something from Fran on the back of a shirt here in Charleston.” This seemingly random encounter at a small restaurant shows why Fran Crippen had such a widespread and lasting legacy; he touched so many people that his legacy will be felt everywhere.