Hot Water

by Casey Barrett

Fran Crippen, One Year Later

The water was 88 degrees, the air almost 100. Like swimming through soup, under an unyielding Shanghai summer sun. If you’d been tanning on the beach, a quick dip in these waters would not cool you off. If you were planning on racing 25km, over 15 miles, in these conditions, forget about it. Reckless Endangerment would be the first two words to come to mind. Wikipedia defines this term as such: “A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.” Sounds about right.

So, back in July at the World Championships, what exactly was FINA doing, allowing the world’s greatest open water swimmers to compete in water this hot? As Team USA’s Alex Meyer said at the time: “It’s like, did you not learn your lesson? Do you not remember what happened last time?”

Yes, last time. One year ago this Sunday. The day that Fran Crippen died, in water cooler than this, in a race near Dubai. On the eve of this tragic anniversary, it feels appropriate to take a look at exactly what has changed in the sport Fran died for — and what has not. The temperature of the water being most troubling of all…

I sought out Germany’s Thomas Lurz for some perspective. Lurz, in case you’re a follower of only what happens in the pool, is open water’s reigning king, a three-time winner of Swimming World’s Open Water Swimmer of the Year, and the favorite for gold next year in London. In Shanghai at Worlds, he won gold in the 10km race. A few days later, he was one of many who pulled out of the 25km race, refusing to enter water that hot, with dark memories of that October day in Dubai. When Crippen never emerged from those waters, Lurz was one of the guys who charged back in to search for his missing friend.

When I emailed him, this was the first line of his reply: “Some things changed, but still not enough… Still no temperature limits.”

How could this be? We all realize that there were many factors that contributed to Crippen’s death — from the negligence of race organizers in Dubai to the lack of basic safety requirements in sanctioned open water events. But at its core, wasn’t it about the conditions? About extreme exertion in a very very hot environment, without considering the potentially disastrous consequences?

In Shanghai, the official response from FINA was that the proposed temperature limits were “a guideline, not a rule.” Translation: Making, and then breaking, rules brings legal accountability. Setting, and then disregarding, guidelines brings, well, a shrug. Make it a judgement call and you’re in the clear. Make it a rule and it’s your ass on the line.

FINA’s supreme ruler (sorry, ‘Executive Director’) Cornel Marculescu followed with the political ‘we’re working it’, saying that FINA and the IOC are working with a New Zealand university on establishing a clear temperature limit, adding that “the target is to be ready by the end of this year and it will be included in the rules for 2012 and the Olympics.”

Ok… But is a university study really necessary to confirm a range that’s already abundantly clear to the athletes in the water? Said Lurz: “A limit between 17-28C (63-83F) would be great. Perhaps then you can make a 0.5 degree (range of error) up and down to get the race started, but a race under 16C (61F) and over 29 (84F) shouldn’t be started.” Like the one in Shanghai, which wasn’t even close to this proposed range…

Before this turns into a FINA-bashing fest, some credit is due. Lurz was quick to point out that there have indeed been a great many changes to open water events across the globe. He notes that there are more safety boats on courses than ever before. He cited a race in Cancun as one impressive example, as scuba divers were positioned throughout the course, particularly around the turning buoys where there are often the greatest threats to safety.

Unfortunately, low-lights remain at certain destinations. With dry understatement, he noted that “Hong Kong is a nice place, but swimming inside the shark nets would be nice.” And in Santos, Brazil, he paints a nasty picture of diseased water: “Not so nice. Dirty water with huge pieces of wood with nails on it. Dead fish, turtles, and rats.” One can only hope that tetanus shots were available at the finish.

Anyone familiar with the wild west history of open water swimming knows that this sort of thing sometimes comes with the territory. In her incredible memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox writes of stomach-turning aquatic adventures, including a race in the Nile River, strewn with animal carcasses, that unsurprisingly resulted in a severe case of dysentery.

Still, that was then, and the adventures of Cox and other frontiersmen and women are a different game. The challenge and danger of the unknown is the point. It is about overcoming and reaching, eventually, slowly, excruciatingly, the other shore, no matter how long it takes. It is not about winning a race. When competition enters the equation, certain regulation becomes essential. It becomes a matter of fairness, but more than that, a matter of safety. Athletes immersed in intense competition are seldom the best judges of their personal safety. (As the concussion epidemic in sports like football and hockey so grimly illustrate…)

One year ago it didn’t seem possible. That a swimmer, one of our own, could die in the midst of a race. As we quickly learned, it was a death that was preventable. This wasn’t a freak heart attack, a there-by-the-grace-of-God sickness so inexplicable we couldn’t hope to understand. The causes of Fran Crippen’s death were understandable. Too much so, uncomfortably so. He was involved in a race of extreme negligence and dangerous conditions. In the end, the water was too hot. It should never be again.