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Crippen's memory still fuels reform fight

Maddy Crippen plans to spend a quiet Sunday with family and friends at her parents' home in Conshohocken, Pa., on the one-year anniversary of her brother Fran's death. The Crippens will attend church and visit the nearby cemetery where Fran is buried.

Other recent gatherings and milestones, such as Fran's birthday in April, have turned into celebrations of a young athlete who brimmed with vitality, featuring a lot of laughter and storytelling. Oct. 23 will be more solemn, but the Crippens still expect "a revolving door," as Maddy describes it, with company coming and going all day.

She's grateful for that.

"People lose loved ones every day, and a lot of them do it alone," Maddy said. "Fran has given us hundreds of new people."

Crippen's drowning death at age 26 during a 10-kilometer open-water World Cup race in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, prompted an outpouring of grief and appreciation from those he had touched and those who had admired him from afar. On the day of his funeral, hundreds of swimmers around the country and the world tossed flowers -- a bouquet, a single stem, a handful of petals -- onto the surface of the nearest body of water.

Those blossoms had barely drifted out of sight before the people who loved Fran began to lobby for change. It was clear from the initial accounts of numerous athletes and onlookers at the race that his death had been not only untimely but unnecessary, the result of a deadly confluence of brutal heat, slipshod organization and inadequate safety measures.

Twelve months later, there's been some political wrangling, some real progress in running elite open-water events more professionally and responsibly, and at least one dubious decision when international officials allowed the 25-kilometer event to proceed in dangerous conditions at the world championships in Shanghai in July. Crippen's death put everyone on high alert about the risks inherent in the sport, but the debate goes on about how to minimize them.

"This is a process that doesn't have an end," said Santa Barbara, Calif.-based coach John Dussliere, a vocal advocate for stricter safety standards. "We have to continue to work to unearth what's not right."

The most vexing issue remains setting a maximum water temperature. FINA, the sport's world governing body, has a "recommendation" of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit) as opposed to a firm rule. The federation says it will reevaluate that if ongoing scientific studies warrant.

"There's going to be constant debate about temperature, and I think that's healthy," said Bryce Elser, hired this year to be USA Swimming's first open-water program manager. "As long as we're debating it, it means we're paying attention."

A U.S. commission also settled on the 31-degree limit this past spring, adding an air-water temperature index. Numerous international open-water swimmers called for a more conservative 28-degree (82.4 F) ceiling in a petition submitted to FINA earlier this year. A few weeks ago, USA Swimming split the difference and voted to lower the maximum to 29.5 C (85.1 F) for events in the U.S., with sanctions for violations.

More observers at races and staff support have been mandated domestically and internationally at open-water events. Large fields, another risk factor, are being controlled with staggered starts.

Yet despite all that activity, the movement for safer racing took a hit at worlds in Shanghai in what Maddy Crippen called "a tough pill to swallow."

The dates and site, selected long before Fran died, locked Shanghai in as host at a time when high heat and humidity smother the area. Organizers moved the race location further from the city center and set earlier start times. The 10K race, where the top 10 automatically qualified for the London Olympics, took place in borderline high temperatures as defined by the new FINA guideline. Alex Meyer, Crippen's friend and U.S. teammate who led the search effort when Fran went missing in the UAE, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team by finishing fourth.

But the normal summer heat intensified, and by the time the 25K event was set to begin at 6 a.m. on July 23, there was no doubt the water temperature would climb past 90 during the six-hour race, with ambient air at least as steamy. Defending world champion Meyer, three-time 10K world champion Thomas Lurz of Germany, European 25K champion Brian Ryckeman of Belgium and others withdrew to protest the conditions. Many swimmers abandoned in mid-course or had to be pulled from the water before the finish, including Claire Thompson of the U.S., the only American of either gender to compete.

After the race, a furious Meyer said officials showed the same willful insensitivity they did at the race where Crippen died, fudging water temperature readings and claiming that fit swimmers would survive. He doesn't blame the athletes who elected to compete, saying it was someone else's responsibility to call off the race.

"A few days after Fran died, there were guys that wanted to swim the [longer] Grand Prix event on the same course," Meyer said. "Where there's money and FINA points, or in the case of Shanghai, Olympic qualification, it's unfair and impossible to ask them not to get in the water. My whole thing is an athlete should never be put in that position."

Ryckeman, who also qualified for the Olympic 10K event, said his frustration with FINA has led him to question his career, but he draws on his memories of Crippen for motivation.

"I'm sure Fran would want us to keep racing and fighting to change the rules," he said.

The groundwork for the rules changes was laid during independent investigations commissioned by FINA and USA Swimming after Crippen's death. Longtime international sports executive Richard Pound of Canada was named chairman of USA Swimming's inquiry. The start of the 2011 World Cup season was postponed by two months in anticipation of FINA's findings.

However, the FINA report -- a methodical dissection of the ragged-to-nonexistent safety net for athletes in Fujairah -- met with disapproval at the top. Members were asked to tone it down but refused, setting up a stalemate.

When the U.S. commission issued its recommendations on the eve of the delayed World Cup opener last April, Pound scolded FINA for refusing to turn over key information and called the impasse "incomprehensible" and "extremely disappointing." FINA released its findings that week. Had it not been for Pound's stature and authority, the sport might still be waiting for them.

The upcoming season may not be quite as rancorous.

Water temperature shouldn't be a factor in London, where the 10K will be contested for only the second time in the Summer Games. That race will take place in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, and swimmers and coaches alike raved about the organization there during a recent test event. Meyer will be the lone U.S. man to compete, but a U.S. woman can still qualify through an event in Portugal in the spring. The U.S. national championships will be held in April in a freshwater lake in Fort Myers, Fla., to mimic the cooler conditions in Europe.

Now that the key issues are on the table, open-water safety should be matter of fine tuning and enforcement, but as Dussliere said, it will probably remain a work in progress. No two race courses are alike, and each will require slightly different logistics and vigilance.

Meyer will be in Conshohocken with the Crippens this weekend. So will Dick Shoulberg, who coached all four high-achieving Crippen siblings through high school at Germantown Academy. Fran was his volunteer assistant for a couple of seasons. Shoulberg just hired Fran's sister Claire, a multiple All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference champion at the University of Virginia, as his assistant aquatics director.

"The pain is still really, really deep, I'll be honest with you," Shoulberg said. "It doesn't go away. It'll never go away. The flip side is, I'm so glad I had him the last few years of his life.

"We have a long way to go in open water, and I'm adamant that the U.S. has to be a leader."

Maddy, who works on the business and marketing end of an architectural firm in Washington, D.C., will marry her fiance, Sean Plankey, in November. She has been active in the foundation the family established to promote race safety and support swimmers that embody Fran's values (two inaugural grants were awarded this fall). Maddy sits on the USA Swimming committee charged with implementing the policy framework that Pound's commission put together.

"Fran taught me a lot in life, and he's taught me just as much in death," she said. "I've been faced with a lot of challenges because of what happened to him and -- just like the day he died -- I think, 'What would he have done? How can I use the tools he had to find a solution?' I might not get one, but I try and go for it. That's how he has made his presence felt to me in my daily life."

The sport Fran Crippen loved failed him tragically. His death will always mark the point when open water was forced to grow up. Now it has to be measured year by year to make sure it keeps maturing.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.