American swimmer Francis “Fran” Crippen died 10 years ago from today during an open water swim in Fujairah, UAE during a 10 kilometer open water swim. The water that day was over 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius).
I was in the stands at a crowded swim meet when news of the death began to circulate. This was before the days of SwimSwam, when I was operating a site called The Swimmers’ Circle.
It’s not entirely clear where the news came from, but it went as a ripple through the stands. This was before the days of accelerated coverage and a wider awareness of ‘swimming outside of our own pool’ took hold in club swimming in America, and many people weren’t exactly sure who he was, but they knew that he was a big deal, and that he had died representing the United States in international competition, and that was enough to be stunning.
As I mashed out the guts of an article on an old iPhone, that I needed a friend, who did not work for the site, to go in on her computer to finish, it was crushing for me to read the details we were receiving.
Not crushing because I knew Fran personally – I didn’t, though those who did have many-times-over described a similar sensation in learning of his loss.
Crushing because of the absolute atrocity that it felt like at the time.
Here’s the line that just crushes your soul:
Crippen was found by deep sea divers almost two hours after all other swimmers finished the event.
Reading it again today, even a decade later, revives oscillating emotions of anger and despair. The president at the time, Julio Maglione, declared that all rules were followed and then commissioned a report that offered a lot of possible explanations for the death, meandering around the water temperature and general lack of safety regulations as a possibility.
And it just hits me, still, that the lack of accountability that was rampant for most of the history of organized swimming was so loud here.
Maglione not only kept his position after that, but later convinced his peers to change the rules so that he could stay in office longer.
In a way, there’s a parallel to the USA Swimming sexual abuse scandal, where Chuck Wielgus, in spite of USA Swimming giving a recommendation for a known child abuser to work with children, saw little accountability. He would eventually be blocked from the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his failures to protect children, but he continued to receive a 7-figure annual salary to oversee the organization.
And so as we move further away from Fran’s death, as history so often goes, the memories evolve from who he was in life, to become the lessons we must remember from his death to prevent tragedy from repeating itself.
There are those who knew Fran who can continue to speak of what he meant, like Mark Warkentin did earlier this week. I can’t offer those memories, though I can continue to provide a platform for them.
What I can do, though, is offer the lesson that musn’t be forgotten by his death: there is corruption in every corner of swimming. Some of this corruption hurts the sport financially, and other corruption in this sport ruins lives. The former is problematic, but the latter is horrifying.
Rules must continue to be put in place to safeguard athletes within the sport of swimming, at every age and every level. The Crippen family, since Fran’s death, have fought tooth-and-nail to get those safeguards in place, and the impact can be seen with the temperature controls and number of safety vessels in place in a modern open water race, and the frequency with which countries pull competitors from events.
This needs to continue to be the norm in our sport. No more excusing this failure of governance with shrugs of “but they’ve brought more money into the sport” or “nobody wants to upset the governing body for fear of repercussions or being frozen out,” which, by the way, has been the hallmark tactic of every corrupt administration of swimming so far in my career (continuing today).
May Fran forever rest in peace, and may his memory and history live on forever.