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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."

FINA President Julio Maglione told reporters that Crippen complained to his coach standing at a dock at the eight-kilometer mark of the race that he wasn't feeling well and that he appeared to have suffered from overexertion. The U.S. coach at the race, Fabian's father Jack Fabian, could not immediately be reached to comment. Race organizers defended their preparations and the safety measures in place.

On a death certificate sent Sunday night from the United Arab Emirates, heat exhaustion and drowning were listed as the causes of Fran Crippen's death, according to Crippen's mother Pat and sister Maddy.

"As my mother has been saying, no matter if it's a swim meet for 4-year-olds or 40-year-olds, there shouldn't even be a question of drowning," said Maddy Crippen, who swam at Villanova. "I'm not 100 percent comfortable with what I know . . . We just don't have those answers. I think that's the one thing my mom is struggling with the most."

At USA Swimming's open-water races, the competitors are counted at each turn to ensure no one has dropped off the course, USA Swimming spokeswoman Jamie Fabos Olsen said. She said at the recent U.S. championships, all of the competitors wore electronic chips to allow organizers to keep track of them during the race. Medical officials and life guards patrol the course in kayaks and on jet skis, she said.

Maddy Crippen said her brother had been campaigning for improved safety at international open-water events and forwarded an e-mail he had sent to Wielgus that detailed some of his concerns.

In a draft of the e-mail, which Maddy Crippen provided to The Post, Fran Crippen wrote: "Once at the events, our swimmers are typically on their own to find assistance. An open water swimmer needs a coach to represent them at the pre race meetings, coach them during practice, and most importantly, feed them during the event. When an athlete doesn't have a coach, they often have to garner the assistance of local volunteers for feeding. In this day and age, it is extremely risky to trust a volunteer in a foreign country with the Gatorade and Gel packs that we are going to consume during the race."

Fabos Olsen said Wielgus received the e-mail Oct. 14, distributed it to the organization's highest-ranking officials and - two hours after he received the e-mail - wrote back to Crippen to say he wanted to gather their feedback to provide a "more thoughtful response."

When the 10-kilometer open-water swim was added to the Olympic program in time for the 2008 Games in Beijing, Fran Crippen and many other American pool swimmers transitioned to the open water.

"One of the things that worried Fran was when he went to some [international open-water events], there weren't a lot of people there he could rely on in terms of health and safety," Maddy Crippen said. "Because it's such a new event, it's like trial by error. And that was a horrendous error."

Fran Crippen, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, earned all-American honors under Mark Bernardino at Virginia, where his younger sister Claire also swam. A younger sister, Teresa, is at the University of Florida. Maddy said the family expects her brother's body returned by Thursday.

"We'll feel a lot better when he's back home and surrounded by all of his U-Va. buddies - brothers - and his Germantown Academy brothers," Pat Crippen said. "Those were the brothers he never had."

Pat Crippen said the last time she saw her son was last Tuesday when she dropped him off at the airport and gave him a hug and kiss. Since he planned to travel in France and Italy after the race, she gave him her "mother's lecture" about terrorist threats and urged him not to wear his Team USA gear when he was out in public.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," she said.

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