Four years ago today, on October 23rd, 2010, American swimmer Fran Crippen lost his life while swimming in an open water race in Dubai, UAE. This was one of the saddest days in the sport in recent memory, and every year, we here at Swimswam try to do a little something to remember him and help preserve the legacy that he left behind.
As I drove home from an early morning practice today on an otherwise nondescript Thursday morning, there was a fantastic sunrise. I wasn’t the only one who saw it – at nearby Rice University, practice paused for a moment so that the team could admire it as well, and coach Amanda Caldwell posted the above photo on her Instagram.
For those who haven’t been to Houston, the sunrises and sunsets here are matched by few places in the world. It’s mostly because of the pollution from the nearby petrochemical plants. The pollution, on a day-to-day basis, is not always fun to deal with, but it gives those of us up early enough to wish the sun ‘good morning’ a reason to smile.
Throughout the day, as the swimmers of the world realize that this is the day, the day that Fran Crippen died four years ago, their instinct will be sadness.
There are no written words, no matter how eloquent, that will tell people when it’s okay to stop mourning the loss of a loved one. It’s nobody’s right to tell Fran’s sisters, or his parents, when they’re no longer allowed to be sad about his death. There’s no structure for how long his family, former teammates, and people like myself who only knew him by reputation, can treat this day as a sad one.
But in a certain light, the feeling of the day melds into one that is a little bit like a Houston sunrise. We could do without the pollution, but every day, without fail, it gives us all a reason to smile. Early morning practices can be difficult, but the slumbering world misses the beauty of a sunrise that comes at the end of a tough workout.
And four years later, as I realized what today was, as no doubt many swimmers will also remember as the day wears on, my mind began to gravitate toward the beauty of this day, and for the first time in the five times where this day has held the significance that it does, I felt the need to smile at a thought.
Fran died will doing what he loved. By all accounts, Fran loved open water swimming as much as anyone has ever loved open water swimming, and he died doing it. There’s a certain poetic beauty in that, a beauty that while clouded with the tragedy of a genuine soul taken far too young, is beautiful none-the-less.
My hope is that this doesn’t trivialize the sorrow of his death; rather, my hope is that the smile adds to the complex legacy that Crippen has left. It’s a legacy that is still evolving, still growing, still having an impact all around swimming.
And so, while I cannot and will not tell anyone how to grieve, we ask you all to find a reason to smile on this day. Be angry that more hasn’t been done to prevent tragedies like Fran’s in open water; be sad that you lost a friend or a loved one or a role model; have as much of whatever emotions you want to feel; but in and among the storm, if a smile strikes you, don’t fight it. Go with it. Cry about the memory of Fran’s death, but smile for the memory of his life.
We should all be so lucky as to bring smiles to others four years after we’re gone, and that’s the model.