October 23, 2020 marks the 10 year anniversary of Fran Crippen‘s death during an open water race in Fujairah, UAE. Mark Warkentin, a 2008 World Championship silver medalist in the 25km open water race, was, along with Fran Crippen, the top of the open water swimming community in the United States as its Olympic debut approached. In this essay, Warkentin remembers his complicated relationship with Fran, and how it evolved during, and then after, his own swimming career.
In memory of Fran Crippen,
I met Fran Crippen in 2006, but I didn’t really meet him until 2010. Our final encounter, just two weeks before he died while racing in Dubai, was by far our best. The moment was relatively brief, but it meant a lot to me at the time and it is one that I still reflect fondly upon today. There are many swimmers and coaches who knew Fran much better than I did, and it is my hope that stories of Fran will continue to be shared in our sport. Here is mine:
Fran and I met in 2006 with an introduction that had parallels to contestestents meeting for the first time on the first season of “Survivor.” Open water swimming had just been confirmed as a new sport for the 2008 Olympics, and some adventurous pool swimmers decided to explore the various race opportunities OWS offered. Many of us had been finalists in the mile at Nationals, so we arrived at OWS with a certain degree of self-confidence as distance swimmers, but there was also a lot of uncertainty about how to actually do an OWS race. Whereas we had all done our fair share of treacherous 10k workouts, there was no clearly understood strategy for how to successfully race a 10k in varied conditions. In those early days 2006 and 2007 there was a brilliant concoction of emotions surrounding every single race. We were all desperate to succeed at this new thing that we didn’t understand.
The conventional wisdom (for most of us) was to enter any OWS race that we could find. It didn’t matter if the race was domestic or international, 10k or 500 meters, in the ocean or river, a FINA professional event or an amateur race with masters swimmers, the only thing that really mattered was that we participated and learned. At the time, the community of American OWS athletes was very small and this meant that every race had familiar competition. These OWS races were how I first met Fran and, for the better part of the next two years, we were regular rivals at numerous OWS competitions.
The rivalry I shared with Fran was not outwardly contentious, but it wasn’t exactly a harmonious friendship either. We were fiercely competitive with each other and the emotional scars of tight race outcomes month after month certainly took their toll. In one race we chased each other around the course for two hours and then, exhausted, we raced side by side just inches apart for the last 10 minutes stretch, bumping each other on every stroke and breathing each other’s air. It took a panel of judges to review the video footage of the finish of that race because the touch was so close.
After the Olympics in 2008 I retired from OWS while Fran continued to race, and in those intervening two years Fran firmly established himself as the #1 American OWS. He became the face of USA OWS and was a highly respected competitor on the international level. Fran and I never talked about our rivalry or shared any moment of reconciliation when I retired – we just took different paths and we left the past behind.
In 2010 I began to feel nostalgic for the OWS community. I missed it. I wanted to be in a pre-race meeting again, to jockey for race position around a turn buoy, and to be part of the post-race festivities. I decided to enter the FINA World Cup race in Cancun in October, knowing that I wasn’t at my best fitness levels. I just wanted to be involved in the community again. A large contingent of USA OWS athletes attended the race and there were many young American faces who I had never raced against. Fran was there as well, and he finished the race as the top American, on the medal podium with the other elite international competitors.
The tradition at all FINA World Cup races was to gather together the evening after the race so that everyone could share their own unique experience from the race. Most athletes don’t travel home until the following morning and everyone stayed at the same hotel, so the evening after a race was always a great time to share your race experience with others. That night, all the American swimmers congregated at the resort pool, and by the time I arrived the American “party” was already well under-way. It was under these circumstances that I met Fran for the first time.
When I arrived, the American contingent, both men and women, were listening with rapt attention to Fran, who was holding court, telling one epic story after another. The audience couldn’t get enough. Did Fran really say that to Bill Rose? Did he actually have that encounter with the head of Singapore airport security? Was that taxi ride in Hong Kong really that crazy? Did he actually do that at the 3rd turn buoy in that race in Brazil? I don’t remember the particulars of any single story Fran told that night, but I do remember the feeling that I had as I stood there listening. After years of looking at Fran as my main competitor I saw him for the first time as who he really was, a guy with a breathtaking amount of charisma. Fran was so brilliantly gregarious that even his most ardent rival had to pause and admit “my goodness this guy is impressive.” It felt like I had encountered the real life version of Ferris Bueller.
Fran and I shared quite a few laughs over the next few hours, and it was a great evening for all of us in the American OWS contingent. Fran and I did not have any particular moment of reconciliation over what had happened a few years prior, but I do feel that we crossed some sort of friendship bridge, and I left Cancun feeling that I had finally met Fran.
Every October I reminisce about that trip to Cancun, and about my relationship with Fran. I believe his death is one of the saddest days in the history of USA Swimming, and his legacy is one that should always endure in our sport. My story of Fran is just one of many that can be told about him. If you knew Fran I hope you find time to share your story as well.