Beyond Limit: A Friend And Competitor Tries To Make Sense Of The Loss Of A Swimm

Coaches loved Fran Crippen for quite a number of reasons. He was always on time, almost always in a good mood. He was vocal, he was motivating, he was enthusiastic. He was attentive and responded exceptionally well to a challenge. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fran was not just his willingness to suffer but an actual desire to do so. He bought into the benefits of suffering. He thought there was something inherently good in punishing parts of his body that most mortals don’t know exist. Tough didn’t quite cut it – we were all tough, to varying degrees above normal – and it wasn’t simply that he had an enormous capacity to hurt himself. It was that Fran saw something spiritually beneficial to suffering in the water. He believed in pushing past pain -- "Tired is not a word in my vocabulary," he used to joke, not really joking -- to discover what lay beyond it.

When I heard on the morning of Oct. 23, 2010, that Fran had drowned earlier that day while swimming in a 10-kilometer open water race in the United Arab Emirates, I was shocked and devastated beyond description. After the initial denial, however, when the questions as to what must have happened started, I felt relatively sure that I understood. Fran had swum in both hot and cold water before. He knew well the dangers of both and I knew that in October, the UAE was going to be hot and the water extremely warm. People were going to pass out, or at least have to quit for fear of doing so. I was quite familiar -- and comfortable -- with the fact that Fran had the capacity to push his body past the point at which it could continue, for whatever reason (the autopsy simply reported "over-exertion"), to sustain consciousness. That capacity was part of what made him who he was. It is something that I understood instinctively and it was one of the ties that bound me so closely to Fran. The fact that he died out in the Gulf of Oman, surrounded by people but ultimately alone, save for the motivation that drove him, is the hardest thing I have had to bear thus far in my life. The only solace I have is the assumption that Fran was in the middle of doing what he does best when he went down: pushing to get through to the other side of whatever pain he was in, just for the simple, beautiful sake of doing so.

For Fran, that country beyond pain was where character is formed. Like any role model worth his salt, Fran expected the teammates he respected (yes, that distinction is important) to suffer at least as much as he was suffering. Fran was a believer in the transformative powers of sport that our University of Virginia coach Mark Bernardino relentlessly expounded, and Fran operated under the assumption that one’s ability to cope with the travails of daily life fluctuates in direct proportion to one’s willingness to work through hurt. He didn’t preach this belief, and the extent of his discussion about it was usually limited to such commentary on complaint as, “How bad can it be? You just swam nine grand in two hours. Deal.” His faith was a sunrise type of faith, a given knowledge of the laws of the universe, and his respect for it showed in his red face and heaving chest, his anticipation of practice and his enthusiasm for every underdog story, no matter how lame or stilted.

Above anyone else on earth, Fran respected the person who overcame, who triumphed by making do, and the more severe the obstacles, the greater his admiration. He was not alone in this, of course, and neither was his favorite-movie list -- Rocky, Braveheart, Gladiator, Prefontaine, Cinderella Man -- by any means unique. But more than most people, Fran applied the principle of triumph-through-struggle to everyday life, every day. Should people (like him and me and the majority of those we swam with) not have grand or tragic obstacles to overcome, they could and should find something they could approach with the zeal of the underdog. Fran poured into workouts and races all the knowledge, all the laughter, all the inspiration and insight and unanswered questions he accumulated throughout his days, and in the fires of determination and perseverance, he forged a character as exceptional and formidable as any I have had the honor of knowing.


No matter what event one swims or trains for, competitive swimming is one of the most physically demanding sports out there. Any activity that allows you to inhale 7,000 to 9,000 calories a day and not gain an ounce of weight that isn’t muscle is physically taxing in the extreme. Swimming also requires a rather unique frame of mind. It demands its participants enter a completely different medium, and once the swimmer is submerged, he is disconnected from the normal world, the only outer stimuli being the muffled roar of moving water and an endless black line on the bottom of the pool. Although individuals assemble into teams in college and for international meets, the practice of swimming, especially distance swimming and absolutely marathon swimming, is an experience of intense isolation. There are no headphones and no changes in scenery, few verbal and no physical interactions with others, and for the most part, all swimmers must rely almost exclusively on their own interior motivation to challenge themselves and improve.

There are, however, mental and physical differences between sprinters and distance swimmers, and these differences can be vast. The shorter events in the pool -- the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter stroke events -- require explosive power over the course of roughly 20 to 50 seconds. The world’s best in these events are master technicians who focus all of their attention on myriad details and judge miniscule distances while traveling at absolute fullest force (see, for instance, the video of Michael Phelps’ 0.01-second victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Sprinters train for this volatile precision by swimming extremely fast a few times a week, developing fast-twitch muscle on dry land and refining technique. Distance swimmers -- the 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyles were Fran’s specialties and are the longest events in the pool -- train to develop “easy speed” and an autonomic ability to sustain pace over long periods. Single “sets” within two- to three-hour workouts are often longer than 5,000 meters and only a fraction of practice time is spent on the wall, at rest. The skills imperative to distance swimming require ridiculous numbers of repetitions and massive amounts of yardage to perfect, which in turn requires a mental attitude that is equal parts perseverance and masochism.

These latter two Fran had in spades. He was one of, if not the, hardest trainer I ever met. From my first workout with Fran in 1999 on, we were fast friends in no small part because we recognized in one another a similar drive: We were competitive with each other, but we were each much more so with our own selves. I often failed a confrontation with the prior day’s pain, but Fran very rarely did, and his exclusively forward progress allowed him to do things in workouts that were all but unparalleled elsewhere in the country and matched by only a handful of guys across the globe. Fran would hear of a legendary, “unbeatable” set, usually from his Germantown Academy coach Dick Shoulberg, and would do it as soon as possible. He never failed any of these self-administered tests and he never just went through the motions of doing them. He excelled at them. Nor did he talk about them afterwards, in either complaint or braggadocio. He collected swim sets and physical feats like smart investors do money – quietly, constantly and with an eye towards perpetual increase rather than the achievement of a specific goal.

Even after the worst performances in the hardest workouts, Fran reminded us that we endured such things because we loved the sport. So essential to his character was Fran's belief in the necessity of personal growth through hard work that he judged people and meted out respect (sometimes grudgingly, depending on a person’s sense of humor) based on how much one had or seemed to be willing to overcome. And he had no time for weaklings. Of all Fran’s faults, this was the most obvious, for he had a bevy of coarser names for weaklings and wasn't shy to use them. To be around Fran for any length of time was to undergo his assessment of your character and either enjoy or suffer the results. His good opinion could buoy a sinking heart, and I’ve seen his appreciation of guys grow over the course of a season as they learned how to train. But his disapproval could be withering, for there was nothing so pathetic in his eyes, such "a waste of oxygen," as those who, upon watching them work out and looking into their eyes afterwards, Fran was sure did not believe in pain. Because Fran worked harder than anyone, profited greatly from this exertion and maintained the happiest-go-lucky attitude I've ever encountered while doing so, his example was impossible not to follow.

This was part of the reason he became such a presence on the open water scene so quickly and had such an impact there. OWS, as open water swimming is referred to by those in the know, is a culture unto itself. It is rich in tradition, lore and -- most appealing to Fran -- unsung heroes. Eccentrics, they were called, by those who knew of their forays. Oddballs. A bit off, all of them, to be out there alone. What about seals and jellyfish and boats and sharks? Wind and currents and waves and the cold? And oddest of all, what do they think about for all that time? How boring open water swimming must be!

For the most part, there is little to no gear. Suits and goggles and Gu packs aside, the constituents of OWS are simply a stripped-down human being and a large body of water. Nonetheless, men and women from all walks of life have historically gone down to some humble shoreline, en masse and alone, to step off terra firma and plunge into often jaw-clatteringly cold water. They take to the river, lake, or ocean and swim, without stopping, for hours and sometimes even days on end. And until just a few years ago, they would simply crawl out of the water at the other end, dress and rejoin the multitudes. Any recognition would be in-house and minimal.

Every once in a while, a great feat would be recognized and celebrated. Crossings of the English Channel in record time or by minor celebrities, the aging, or the handicapped may make headlines. An especially long swim may gather a few thousand spectators at the finish line. But in an age when even the most obscure sports are being overrun by sponsors and over-inflated by hype, OWS continues to be comprised primarily of individuals drawn to traverse large bodies of water for rewards more internal than external, and their incredible feats of human endurance more often than not go unnoticed by anyone but eyewitnesses. Most OWS events are more celebration and communion than competition, a gathering of those like-minded "oddballs" who share a deep appreciation for what marathon swimming demands. Medals and awards at most OWS events are more of a bestowal of respect from the group to one of their own, a placing of laurels in the best traditional sense, than they are a victory over foes.

It was this old-school vibe, this cult of pure human exertion and the community of spirit around it, that attracted Fran to OWS. The majority of events take place in relatively calm bays and harbors, while others are held in rather more dicey conditions. Many swims are from point A to B, across a channel or along a shoreline, especially if a single-direction current or "sweep" is particularly strong. The majority of races, though, are set up around a course. Large (7-8’) buoys are arranged in a basic pattern -- usually a rectangle or triangle -- one lap around which is a certain fraction of the race’s total length. For instance, the course for the 10K at the 2010 Pan Pacific Games was set up in Long Beach Marine Stadium, a poured-concrete saltwater channel behind the harbor. Two parallel, one-kilometer strings of small buoys ran down the length of the channel. A feeding platform -- several precarious plastic floating docks bound haphazardly together -- doubled as the Start/Finish line. Swimmers began in between the two lines of buoys, swam half a kilometer to a large marker, turned, swam one kilometer back, passing the feeding platform halfway, turned at another large buoy at the opposite end of the lines, and swam another half kilometer back to the feeding platform. This being one two-kilometer “lap,” the swimmers proceeded to swim four more. These races take typically between a hundred minutes and two hours, depending on the conditions. Swimmers will stop briefly for nourishment at the feeding stations, but otherwise they are swimming, between 85 and 100 percent effort, the entire time. Physically, this means burning an estimated 2,000 calories. Mentally, between strategy, focus and determination, the 10K is somewhat akin to a NASCAR race.

Fran also saw in marathon swimming a new opportunity. He competed in his first 10K on something of a lark; he was already swimming in the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, British Columbia, and there was an open spot to swim the 10K. Fran placed second. Very quickly, he decided that if he was at his best at the end of a five-hour workout and only getting going in a 15-minute mile race, perhaps these 2-hour, 10K races, in which he was already near the top, were the way to go.

He took to OWS like, well, the fish that he was. He moved from his hometown of Conshohocken, Pa., where he’d gone to train after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2006, to Mission Viejo, CA. He was offered a spare bedroom in a host family’s home and integrated himself into their lives as if it were the most natural thing ever. He trained under coaching legend Bill Rose of the Mission Viejo Nadadores, taught lessons to little kids and coached age group swimming, hung out on Orange County beaches and traveled the world swimming. He would go with Coach Rose to some Caribbean island, swim a 10K and afterwards put on a clinic for local kids before heading out for “a taste of the local night life.” He was, to repeat his favorite cliché, which he did constantly, “living the dream.” The 10K was on the lineup at the 2008 Olympics for the first time in Olympic history, and Fran was determined to make the team. Competition was not very deep in the U.S. field, and Fran was considered by many to be a shoe-in. Unfortunately, he missed an Olympic berth by one spot.

This time, Fran was fazed by failure. He road-tripped home to Conshohocken, the long way through New Orleans and Florida, and seemed resigned to hanging up his suit. He was “thinking about the future,” he’d tell me with mock seriousness from up and down the East Coast, where he tooled around visiting friends, going to UVA swim meets and watching the Phillies on the road. In September, Fran found out he could weasel his way into the NYC Marathon, and started to train for that. He felt 26.2 miles was no big deal for him, and when I talked to him four days before the race, he said he’d been slacking and had only run three times over the previous couple weeks.

"Twenty-six miles is a long way," I said, skeptically.

"Eh, it won't be that bad," he answered with typical downplay. "I ran to the Art Museum and back this morning, just to see how a long-ish run felt."

"The Art Museum? That's way down the city. Where'd you run there from?"

"There's a trail along the Schuylkill [River]. It's only like 11 miles from my house to the Rocky Steps, door to door. So I ran there and back. No big deal, I’ll be fine."

And fine he was. "It wasn't too bad," he wrote in an email to me a couple days afterwards. "I wasn't trying to break world records." He told me his legs started to hurt around mile six, but then he passed a guy with no arms and told himself "it was go-time." So he ramped it up, kept smiling and crossed the finish line in 3:17. He called the NYC marathon "pretty much the coolest thing ever" and decided he was going to run it every year until “I’m the oldest person ever to run it and then run it another decade after that. For good measure.” In 2009, he ran a 2:58.

Last November, his sister, Maddy, ran in his stead.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine running that marathon was a turning point for Fran. Whatever the case, he decided he wasn’t done as an athlete, and came the first of the year 2009, he was back in the water.
It was as if he'd never gotten out of shape. Within a couple months, Fran competed in the 2009 World Championship Trials, just to see where he was standing. He made the trip and went on to take bronze in the 10K at Worlds in Rome that summer. The rest of that year (and for the rest of his life), Fran was on the OWS circuit full-time, garnering medals in races all over the world, participating in events and clinics, and campaigning for what he saw as vital adjustments to the safety of OWS races. Fran had always been a well-known figure within USA Swimming, but over the final 18 months of his life, he became something of an international figurehead. He was funny, confident and photogenic, and he embraced his role as FINA's poster child of marathon swimming.

Fran represented a new era of open water swimmers: elite pool swimmers entering directly into the upper echelons of OWS. Unfortunately, OWS athletes and racing styles have evolved much faster than the event infrastructure. With a peloton of a dozen swimmers jockeying for position in and out of buoy turns and across multiple-kilometer straight-aways, it is not feasible to have one boat per swimmer, as was the practice in years gone by, but neither is it sufficient to have a handful of onlookers sprinkled around the course.

The latter is what seems to have happened in Fran's case. The day before the race, the venue was changed and the already-feeble support infrastructure was rendered still more pathetic. The air around the course was over 100 degrees and water in the Gulf of Oman was in the high 80s. Fran reported being tired and not feeling well at the last feeding station, about 8k into the race, but not surprisingly, he pushed on. An official reportedly saw Fran within the final 500-meter stretch of the triangular course; he had his head up, apparently looking in the wrong direction. The official then looked away, and the next time anyone saw Fran was nearly three hours later, when a search and rescue diver brought his body back to the boat.

One of the hardest parts about the aftermath of Fran's death has been avoiding the assignation of blame. The fact of the matter is that whatever physical malfunction caused Fran to stop swimming and slip under the surface of Gulf of Oman was an accident and is, ultimately, the only “reason” there is that he died. The tragedy is that in all the moments that followed, up until "too late" was reached, absolutely nothing was done for him. In fact, it was half an hour or so after the race before Fran was missed and the frantic search ensued, and it was another two hours before Fran was found. None of the individuals involved in the search for Fran or the recovery of his body were at fault, and my heart goes out to all those who were there and had to deal with being in such close proximity to that horror. The mechanisms that misaligned and allowed the momentary glitch in Fran’s body to become a tragedy are much bigger than any one person, yet we all wanted someone or something to pay for having hurt us by taking Fran away. How could this happen?

Some of the criticism following Fran's death has come from people implying that Fran himself was at fault for his body failing him. These people call for athletes to be more responsible for themselves and their "health" during competition. The problem is that very few athletes – none that I’ve ever known – who have the discipline, drive and mindset to be as good as Fran was would ever allow themselves to be dissuaded, independent of the competition, by possibly dangerous conditions. They are there to compete. Stronger still than the social instinct is the competitive drive, and except in the face of the most extreme conditions imaginable (under which the Gulf of Oman that day did not qualify), I cannot imagine one person, let alone a favorite, backing out of a race that everyone else is competing in. The pressure to compete is higher when there is money to be won, and even higher yet when you are trying to make a living winning circuit purses.

Backing out once the race has begun is in many ways even harder. During the race, the same indicators of overexertion -- muscle cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, tunnel vision, etc. -- are par for the course when you are pushing yourself towards the limits of human endurance. Heat exhaustion, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, etc., by their very nature affect awareness, judgment, and thought processing, and deny athletes the ability to recognize their deteriorating condition. This is particularly true of long-distance events in any discipline, in which athletes consciously, if not intentionally, train through such states in order to recognize them and deal with them appropriately. This loss of focus is further exaggerated in the water, where you don't have gravity and a hard surface to let you know your motor skills are out of whack, and it’s difficult to tell when your vision is blurring, your skin is becoming clammy, your sweat is coming out all wrong, your mouth is dry, or you are displaying any number of the other signs that your body is trying to quit. At this point, your ability to be responsible for your own condition, for raising a protest or calling it quits, is severely compromised.

Worse yet, in open water, no matter how crystal clear your lagoon may be, when a swimmer passes out, he disappears from sight. Should a marathon runner collapse or a cyclist pass out, support sees where the athlete falls and can go directly to that person. Worst of all, when you pass out in the water, you start breathing water. That runner or cyclist who loses consciousness has the comparative luxury of lying unconscious on a hard surface, breathing air and beginning immediately to recoup while support realizes what's happened and makes its way over.

Whatever the case, overexertion should not kill a man as strong as Fran. Stumble across an interview with Fran on the Internet – they aren’t hard to find – and you will find him laughing about crippling muscle cramps, vomiting and loose bowels during races, about walking weak-kneed and wobbly from the water, about dehydration and hypoglycemia so severe during workout that he had to consciously fight to retain consciousness. These things were funny to him, and they are funny to everyone who has experienced them as a direct result of concentrated and purposeful physical exertion. Essentially, however, they are funny because we have survived them, have gone through them and can laugh about these failures of what we otherwise like to consider our superior, flawless bodies. Like disaster survivors or veterans, athletes who have literally run until they dropped connect with one another through humorous anecdotes of various instances that reminded them, however fleetingly, of their own mortality. Never short on competition, such banter is often heavily laden with superlative -- "I was absolutely certain I was going to die"; "my heart basically just stopped working, it just quit"; "I was mid-drown" -- but is not entirely off-base.

But underlying an athlete's pushing the physical envelope is the assumption that the trail, hill, hippodrome, lake, river or ocean is under supervision and essentially safe. Fran was not out swimming alone in some remote body of water, tempting fate. He was taking part in an event on a controlled course sanctioned by an international governing body whose primary purpose is purportedly to provide a safe stage for the world’s elite to compete upon. While there is of course no amount of preparation that could preclude fatal accidents from ever occurring in any scenario, the disastrous mismanagement that preceded the event in the Gulf of Oman expose not only the responsibility such governing bodies have, but also the absolute trust athletes put in their hands. No one in such a precarious position as a swimmer in open water should go missing, for several hours, out from under the noses of the very people who are ostensibly there to guard his life against such an accident.

The need to increase the presence of doctors, trained medical staff and knowledgeable support personnel at open water venues was one of Fran's personal missions. Besides the clinics he taught internationally, Fran also worked with men and women in many different areas of the swimming world -- writing emails just days before his death -- to improve open water swimmers' representation, improve the lifeguard-swimmer ratio and generally bolster the precautions that were (not) taking place in a standardized way across OWS. Fran was intimately familiar with the dangers of pushing past one’s comfort zone into the farthest edges of limitation, and was therefore passionately invested in establishing sufficient safeguards against the very oversights that eventually cost him his life.

The rather brutal irony is that it took Fran's very death to demonstrate how flawed the current safety situation was and has been for a long time. The fact of the matter is that no amount of letter writing throughout the rest of Fran’s life would have precipitated the activity that has taken place in the wake of his death: two separate investigations are ongoing; an OWS Athletes Bill of Rights is being compiled; and international safety conferences have been convened. The Crippen family has established the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation to encourage safety advocacy, support budding OWS stars and develop international fellowship. In early April, FINA updated its rules and regulations for the 10K World Cup, and last week released its Task Force report concluding its investigation into Fran’s death.

Amid all this, there have even been calls for a general hiatus from marathon swimming events until a consensus can be reached on standard safety practices. This is not feasible and it is far from what Fran would have wanted. He loved swimming, everything about it, and he worked tirelessly to spread that love amongst every group he had the opportunity and, as he saw it, the distinct pleasure to work with. Fran was undoubtedly a showman -- he loved the camera and microphone, the adulation, winks and smiles -- but he felt he had a responsibility to use whatever platform he was given to share his love of the sport, his concern over the safety of its athletes, and, on a broader scale, his belief that anyone willing to work can achieve any dream they may have.

Fran Crippen would have turned 27 last Sunday. When a light like his is taken out of the world, people try to make sense of what they are suddenly missing. And the fact that so many people -- international fans and even strangers -- recognized Fran's lightness suggests to me how rare it is. The person with whom I shared the hardest things I've ever done is gone, and it is only now, through the lens of the last six months, that I can see that Fran had a hand in developing whatever aspects of my character I consider relatively admirable. Since Fran died, it feels as if there are pieces missing, that there's one less of the "us" and the "our" that give my life meaning.

What is especially poignant about the continuing efforts to reform open water swimming and the progress already being made in that direction -- both of which are taking place in Fran Crippen's very name -- is that the final failure of his body is being turned into a lasting and important success. And while Fran would bristle at the idea of him as any kind of martyr, the hard work being put into making something of Fran’s memory is absolutely the greatest possible tribute to him. At the same time, it is the very least we can do for a man who showed us, with a wide smile and by perpetual example, that the very best thing we can do in life, for our own happiness and for the good of those around us, is to push through every difficulty, no matter how painful.

-- Ian Prichard, a six-time NCAA All-American swimmer (UVa '04), writes, teaches, works and lives in Ventura, California. Email him at [email protected]