Monday, October 23rd, marks 7 years from the date when American open water swimmer Fran Crippen died in an open water race in the UAE.
I still often think about that day in 2010, when the news broke. I was a recently-retired summer league coach who had just started his first job in ‘the real world.’ SwimSwam didn’t exist, and I was working at its predecessor site, The Swimmers’ Circle. I was attending a club meet of a swimmer who I had previously coached that summer, when I saw a Tweet or a text (I can’t remember which) with the news.
Stories spread much slower then, and I remember sitting among the mostly-parents of swimmers, frantically on my phone trying to draft an appropriate turn of phrase to describe the tragedy.
In 2017, that story would’ve been instantaneously spread throughout the crowd. In 2010, social media, while it existed, was much younger, much less developed – just as I was in my journalism career. This was the first real tragedy I had to deal with as an editor.
I remember thinking at the time that this felt like a very, very big deal to me, but that feeling was lonely – I sat among a few hundred people, with nobody else in the building seeming to be processing the same news that had just come across my phone.
The point is, that Fran, and the Crippen family, were well-known in the inner-circle of swimming back then. That inner circle was a much smaller and tighter one than it is now – I don’t know if it was widely-known just how important Fran was to the people who he knew, intimately, and the sport of open water swimming as a whole.
When you hear coaches, national-level coaches like Tyler Fenwick, say things like “Fran Crippen is one of the reasons that I coach open water swimming,” you start to get a feel for what he meant. Fran was a swimmer that you could paint as a role-model for your young athlete, and it would be true and authentic.
“Fran was larger than life,” Fenwick said, who cites that connection to Fran as one of the reasons that he took the job this summer as associate head coach at Virginia. “His smile, his energy, his personality energized you. If there was a rom of 500, you’d know exactly where he was.
“He was a great friend and teammate. He cared tremendously, held the people closest to him to a standard and expected their best. He elevated those he ccompeted against in the way he prepared and the way he raced. He was one of a kind.
“I’m thankful for the time I could share with him. He was special.”
That’s why the work of the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation, the organization started by his family after his death to carry on his legacy, is so important. In the era of full-blown social media, Fran would have been at the front of the pack of the ‘decent ones’ in our sport, one who was infectious in his passion. He was the kind of guy you’d name an award after even if he were still alive.
And the Elevation Foundation provides support to athletes who fit that mold. The athletes they sponsor are, almost unequivocally, the kind of people that we should all hope our children aspire to be like.
Bobby Bollier – the Stanford grad who was an Academic All-American at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Emily Brunemann – who helped launch Athletes Connected at the University of Michigan, and who I truly believe has saved lives in our sport through that program and a series of mental health issues she’s written for us, which were a guiding light during a very dark time in swimming. Her husband, Michael Klueh, who is an 8-time World University Games medalist who is now enrolled at the University of Michigan med school, was also a beneficiary of the program.
Ashley Twichell, who went to Duke and had every opportunity with that education to give up swimming for a more mainstream career but didn’t – and is now an individual open water World Champion at 28-years old, and a contender for Olympic gold in Tokyo. She persevered, with the help of this grant.
The current honoree and recipient of the support is Eva Fabian. The Yale alum is part of a generation of what I like to call ‘true open water swimmers’ – who eschewed possibilities in the pool to pour their everything into open water swimming.
And note the alma maters – Duke, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, Texas. Not much more needs to be said about that.
And beyond that support program – the foundation’s continued effort to keep others from his fate has to draw a direct line to the withdraw of the American team (and several others) from the open water event at the World University Games this summer. The Elevation Foundation’s continued work to keep the issue in the spotlight gave USA Swimming and their athletes the license to make the safe decision – the decision that ensures that the swimmers, above all else, return home safely to their families at the end of the day.
Fran changed the world for those who knew him. His legacy is changing the world for all of us. And that’s why it’s important for us to keep his memory alive – every year – for those who weren’t fortunate enough to feel his impact while he was alive.
Visit FranCrippen.org to learn more about the organization’s programs, and please consider making a donation to continue the dream. If you can’t do that, please share the stories of Fran to ensure the legacy lives. Because to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.