A Breaststroke Kick to the Gut: The Day We All Woke Up to News that Alexander Dale Oen Had Died

When I woke up this morning, May 1st, 2014, I had a bit of a gut-wrenched feeling. I couldn’t exactly put a finger on why, but there was just this sense about this date, and swimming, and that there was something I was supposed to be remembering.

German Nationals start today, but that wasn’t it. That elicits a different feeling of excitement.

As I logged onto Twitter, a note popped up from “The Swedish Swim Nerd,” who said “Gone but never forgotten, I miss you .”

And then it came rushing back. The feeling of waking up on the wee hours of May 1st, 2012, just a few short months after the launch of SwimSwam. This was the first big tragedy after the website started, and we were in a scramble to try and track down news of exactly what had happened.

This is how these things usually go. The first thing you hear is some semblance of what really went down, but there’s details to be filled in. It reminds me of the September 11th attacks, where first reports were that a car bomb had gone off near the White House, which obviously paled in comparison to what was actually happening in D.C. and New York on that day.

But by the time we awoke here in the States, Dale Oen’s coach Petter Loevberg had confirmed the worse fear. Dale Oen passed away while at a high altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona in his hotel room late on April 30th. The cause was a heart attack caused by coronary heart disease.

No death of a 26-year old can be trivialized. They’re all sad, they’re all terrible, nobody deserves to be taken from their family, their friends, at that young of an age.

In Dale Oen’s case, however, perhaps nobody deserves to be taken away from a nation in the way that he was.

Dale Oen the prior year had won the 2011 World Championship in the 100 meter breaststroke, making him the first swimmer in the history of his country to win a World Championship. He was one of the country’s greatest hopes for gold in London at the 2012 Olympics (they wound up with two without him).

But his was an even more significant tale from the year before. His World Championship win became an iconic moment in his native country, as it came just days after Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 people in a domestic terrorism attack in Oslo, Norway. Dale Oen had an incredible, emotional outpouring, and his countrymen rallied around him, much like Bostonians did behind the baseball Red Sox’ World Series run after the Boston Marathon attacks in 2013.

But then the news came, and it was shattered. This was an athlete on the verge of not only altering swimming history, but becoming a cultural icon in his native country. He was in his prime, and at his peak, and he was snatched from the bounds of earth, alone, in a hotel room.

It’s a hard day. It’s a date that’s easy to remember. It stands out on a calendar. I went back to look at Dale Oen’s Twitter account today, which is something we’re afforded in the modern generation. It leaves an eerie, haunting memory of the man that was lost. It’s almost a posthumous autobiography, something that prior generations didn’t have the opportunity to share. Rarely did 26-year olds prior to the era of social media think to publish their thoughts publicly in the days leading to their death.

Dae Oen’s last Tweet on the day of his death is “2 days left of our camp up here in Flagstaff,then its back to the most beautiful city in Norway.. #Bergen.” Shortly before that he gave equipment advice to a casual fan who asked for how to improve his freestyle. He was coming back from an injury, working his way into shape for a swim in Monaco on the Mare Nostrum. The plan the prior fall to train in Japan until the 2012 Olympic Games that would never come for him.

And it all comes rushing back. The memory of May 1, 2012, that feeling, that awful feeling.

If you woke up this morning with that feeling too, that sense that today was something you were supposed to remember, you weren’t alone. The Swedish Swim Nerd and I were right there with you.

The 2014 Bergen Swim Festival will be held from May 23rd-25th in Bergen, Norway, once again honoring the memory of Dale Oen. More information available here.

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About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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