After months of sadness and a concerted, sometimes contentious effort to bring sorely needed safety reforms to elite open-water swimming, the friends, family and former teammates of the late Fran Crippen gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this past weekend to honor him by doing what he lived for -- racing.
The 10K Crippen SafeSwim attracted a strong field of swimmers from Canada and Australia, as well as the entire U.S. national open-water team, fresh from a camp in the Florida Keys. A month from now, on the same course, the U.S. swimmers will battle for slots on the world championship team. Two men and two women will qualify, and the results at worlds in Shanghai will determine how many U.S. swimmers will compete at the 2012 London Olympics.
Crippen's heat-related drowning at a 10K World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates this past October already has had a tangible effect on the Olympic lead-up. Even before the April release of separate investigative reports by USA Swimming and FINA, swimming's international governing body, U.S. officials decided to move the national championships from Fort Myers Beach to Fort Lauderdale because of concerns that the water temperatures on the Gulf Coast would be too warm. The start times in Shanghai have been shifted to earlier in the morning, but many swimmers and coaches still worry the conditions there will push the envelope of what is prudent.
Saturday's 10K featured an unusual, entertaining finish for an elite race, in which swimmers generally aim for an electronic touch pad in the water. Instead, after rounding the last turn buoys, the swimmers headed straight for the beach, "dolphining" through the shallows, getting to their feet and running (or in some cases, limping) through the sand up a slight incline and under a finish-line arch.
Andrew Gemmell of the U.S. won the men's race, which had 19 entrants. Christine Jennings looked as if she would make it an American sweep in an 11-woman race, but wobbly legs betrayed her on land after two hours in the water and Australia's Melissa Gorman edged her in the sprint.
Jennings, the 10K gold medalist at last year's Pan Pacific Championships, and world 5K champion Eva Fabian of the U.S. had their own frightening moments the day Crippen died. A struggling Jennings called for help that never came, and both women required medical attention after the race. The two of them, along with teammate Alex Meyer, who led swimmers in a search for his missing friend when officials failed to respond, have done an admirable job of moving past the trauma to focus on their competitive goals.
Race safety has become a very personal issue for them, as it has for many members of Crippen's extended family in the sport. Among the luminaries in attendance was backstroke king and seven-time Olympic medalist Aaron Peirsol, who grew up swimming in the ocean in Southern California and paid his respects by racing in a mile-long Dash for Cash held before the 10K.
That race featured 120 participants who started in "waves" of 40 according to ability (organizers asked swimmers for their 500-yard times as part of the registration process). The staggered start is considered safer than a mass start in a field of that size. Additional safety measures included color-coded swim caps for each "wave" to make head counts easier; careful monitoring of water temperatures; and course observers using personal watercraft and paddle boards, as well as boats. There was one feeding station on a boat halfway down the course, which paralleled the beach and allowed for good vantage points for coaches and spectators alike.
Crippen's sister and 2000 Olympian, Maddy Crippen; his girlfriend and former Villanova swimmer, Caitlin Regan; and his University of Virginia teammate Lee Robertson spearheaded the race organization for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation.
Robertson said there are tentative plans to stage the race again next year at the same time.
"We think it was a great foundation for an event that can really grow, and obviously having Fran's name on the race will attract a lot of people,'' he said.