Nine days before he died in an open-water race, Fran Crippen sent an e-mail to the head of USA Swimming, complaining about a lack of financial support and the failure to send coaches to “protect the athletes” at meets around the world.
While two separate investigations into Crippen’s Oct. 23 death will undoubtedly focus on allegations that world governing body FINA failed to ensure safe conditions for the race in the United Arab Emirates, the actions of USA Swimming are also under scrutiny.
Crippen’s e-mail to USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus refers to a plan being pushed by former national team coach Mark Schubert that called for increased compensation and making sure someone was on hand to support and watch out for the athletes at major events.
Reached Tuesday by The Associated Press, Schubert confirmed that he decided in early September to appoint national youth coach Jack Roach, a former Marine and beach lifeguard, as the head open-water coach.
Schubert said he wanted Roach to attend any open-water meet with at least four American competitors the rest of the year, then make sure a coach or representative was at all the biggest meets beginning in 2011. Under that plan, Roach would have been at the race near Dubai in which Crippen lost his life.
“In open water, we always worry about safety,” Schubert told the AP. “It’s not like a swimming pool when somebody goes to the bottom. You see ‘em and you dive in. If you go to the bottom in that sport, nobody sees it and, just like Fran, they find your body two hours later. It’s sickening.”
Schubert said he never got a chance to put his plan into effect. He was placed on leave in mid-September and formally fired last month.
The only person assisting the U.S. team in the Middle East was the father of a swimmer who paid his own way, leading some to wonder if the national governing body did enough to protect its athletes.
Crippen’s coach, Dick Shoulberg, told the AP he’s convinced the 26-year-old swimmer would not have been allowed to race in potentially dangerous conditions if Roach had been there.
“If Mark Schubert had a representative at the meet, they would have said, ‘We’re not swimming,’” said Shoulberg, who has been outspoken about beefing up safety for an emerging sport that became part of the Olympics in 2008. “I think Fran would be alive if U.S. swimming would’ve had more support for its athletes.”
Shoulberg stressed that most of his fury is directed at FINA, claiming the meet was moved on short notice to a course without adequate rescue personnel, and that it shouldn’t have been held anyway because water temperatures were too warm. Crippen failed to finish the 10-kilometer race and his body was found about two hours later.
FINA and USA Swimming are conducting separate investigations but have yet to issue their findings.
Jamie Olsen, a spokeswoman for USA Swimming, said Tuesday that neither Wielgus nor national team managing director Lindsay Mintenko were aware of any concrete plans to send a coach to Dubai.
“I’m not doubting a conversation happened, but it’s not something that was ever brought up with them,” Olsen said. “Certainly the staff is always talking to athletes, coaches and volunteers, so I’m not going to say it never happened. They’re always discussions about what we can do to make things better.”
Since Crippen’s death, USA Swimming is considering whether to have support staff at the biggest events, but officials stressed it would be impossible to send a national coach to every meet.
“There are races that athletes will continue to go to that are not even on the FINA calendar,” said Paul Asmuth, a former marathon swimmer and adviser to the U.S. open-water program. “There’s races happening every month somewhere around the world.”
This has already been a troubling year for USA Swimming on many fronts, including a sexual abuse scandal and the mysterious firing of Schubert, a Hall of Fame coach. Neither side has revealed the reason for his dismissal, other than to say it had nothing to do with allegations of numerous coaches having improper relationships with underage swimmers.
Crippen wrote to Wielgus with his concerns on Oct. 14. The swimmer said he had spent $2,500 of his own money to cover travel costs during the World Cup season and questioned why USA Swimming would not pay for coaches to attend meets, as other prominent swimming nations did.
“I believe that not having proper representation is a very poor reflection upon USA swimming,” Crippen wrote.
He talked of having “numerous conversations” with officials about the direction of the program and Schubert’s intention “of reimbursing my travel expenses and sending someone to help and protect the athletes at the races.”
According to Crippen’s e-mail, the Americans had competed at four of seven World Cup events without any support staff. Bill Rose, coach of the 2008 Olympic team, attended a meet in Mexico at his own expense and worked with seven swimmers. Jack Fabian, father of swimmer Eva Fabian, paid his own way for two other meets, mainly to work with his daughter but also assisting the rest of the Americans.
Jack Fabian also attended the race in which Crippen lost his life, but no one was there in an official coaching capacity.
“I was very enthused about Mark Shubert’s (sic) plans and believed that this was a great step for Open Water Swimming,” Crippen wrote. “As the year has progressed these conversations have not translated into action.”
Crippen’s major concern was someone contaminating the feeding gels and drinks that swimmers rely on over the course of the grueling races, leading to a positive drug test. Floating stations are set up around the course for support staff to hand off the nutrition packs and hydration bottles to the swimmers.
“Once at the events, our swimmers are typically on their own to find assistance,” Crippen wrote. “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.
“I think the last point is the most critical. When an athlete doesn’t have a coach they often have to garner the assistance of local volunteers. 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.”
Wielgus wrote back to Crippen four days before his death, saying he had discussed the issues with Mintenko, interim national team leader Jim Wood and assistant executive director Mike Unger.
“We thought you raised some legitimate points and I appreciate you sharing your concerns with me in a thoughtful manner,” Wielgus wrote.
He said Roach would be calling to discuss some of the suggestions, but the coach never got a chance to talk with Crippen. Roach wound up flying to Dubai to claim Crippen’s body and return it to the U.S.
Shoulberg said he’s working with swimmers from around the world, including German champion Thomas Lurz, to ensure there’s not a repeat of what happened in October.
“Fran never should have died,” Shoulberg said. “The next kid should never have to die. I want to make sure this sport is safe.”