Fellow competitor blames heat, safety lapses in death of swimmer Fran Crippen

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:54 PM

An American swimmer blamed the blazing heat, unusually warm surf and lack of medical and safety personnel on the course for the death of former University of Virginia swimmer Fran Crippen, 26, in an open-water race Saturday in the United Arab Emirates.

Crippen's body was found about 400 meters from the finish of the 10-kilometer world cup event.

The other American, Christine Jennings, said she vomited several times in the water. Jennings, 23, got dizzy and veered off course. Fearing she would black out, she turned over and swam on her back with an arm in the air to signal her distress to the safety boats that are supposed to follow the swimmers in such races.

But when no one responded, Jennings struggled to the finish, where she staggered out of the water with the help of a fellow swimmer and was taken to a hospital.

"It was a disaster," she said. "I'm floating on my back for several minutes, thinking 'Why isn't anybody checking on me?' "

Jennings said she noticed a referee's boat and several people on jet skis before the race, but not as many as typically patrol the water given swimmers' vulnerability to extreme temperatures, jellyfish stings and other problems. U.S. teammate Eva Fabian, 17, rode in the same ambulance as Jennings to the hospital; both were treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion.

A Brazilian swimmer also was hospitalized, according to reports from the race site in Fujairah. Race officials said the water temperature at the start of the race was 84 degrees, but Jennings said she believed it was much hotter.

"I feel like I really need to speak out about this," Jennings said from her home in Longmont, Colo. "People have been telling me not to talk [to the media], but I want to do it more in honor of Fran. Fran was the type of person [that], if something was wrong, he would do something about it to make it better."

Hours after the race, she said, she and Fabian were taken to the local police station to provide statements, but no international or United Arab Emirates swimming officials have sought her out for an interview. The world swimming governing body (FINA) announced Saturday that it had opened an investigation into Crippen's death. Jennings vowed to seek out FINA if no one reaches out to her.

"FINA needs to understand what happened and not brush this off as some freak incident, which it wasn't," Jennings said. "They need to make changes. They signed off on this race. . . . There are a lot of questions I want to ask."

USA Swimming announced late Monday afternoon that it would conduct its own investigation - one separate from FINA's - into Crippen's death.

"What happened in Fujairah on Saturday is an absolute tragedy, and a thorough investigation must be conducted to provide clear answers to the Crippen family and swimming community, as well as to identify and establish clear guidelines by which all international competitions should be conducted," said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, in a statement. "With the insight gained from this investigation, USA Swimming plans to call on FINA and its member nations to thoroughly review and improve open water safety protocols, procedures and precautions."

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