by Irvin Muchnick
We’ve begun breaking angles of the story behind the lawsuit at Germantown Academy, alleging that institution’s liability for the athlete-on-athlete abuse suffered by a former swimmer in coach Dick Shoulberg’s program. Look for more new developments later this week. And follow the complete thread at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10736.
With all aspects of Shoulberg’s program now under belated scrutiny, Concussion Inc. devotes this installment to revisiting the 2010 death of 26-year-old Fran Crippen — a member of one of Germantown’s royal swimming families — at an international open water race near Dubai.
A full airing of this tragedy has never been attempted. Indeed, in the longstanding official malfeasance, both before and after, Crippen’s death might more faithfully be termed a crime — negligent homicide — than a tragedy.
To this day, even the dissident voices don’t want to be quoted or cited for fear of retribution from the swimming establishment. But here’s the short version: Crippen was human fallout from the takeover of the old professional marathon swimming circuit by FINA (Fédération internationale de natation, the international governing body of aquatic sports). He perished in what observers called a perfect storm of ill factors in the Persian Gulf waters off the United Arab Emirates.
The relationship of Dick Shoulberg to the story of death in the water is tangential to his relationship to the story of sexual abuse in swimming. The subject warrants discussion in tandem in the following sense: Anyone who was involved in swimming at the club level in the 1970s and 80s knows that the abuse problem was ingrained in the culture of the sport. Shoulberg served on the USA Swimming steering committee — where he was strategically outspoken-not — during the same period (post-2008) when two things were happening simultaneously:
What the two narratives share is USA Swimming’s money-first indifference to the young people in the water, whether in enclosed pools or in vast stretches of ocean. For USA Swimming, open water was purely a “brand extension.” Its potentates didn’t give a hoot about safety. Crippen paid the ultimate price for their indifference.
In 1991, FINA had swallowed up the old international pro open water circuit, which was run by a group called the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation. WPMSF featured such legendary figures as John Kinsella, Paul Asmuth, and Diana Nyad. (The latter would become more famous and financially rewarded through her solo challenge swims, most notably the 2013 Havana-to-Miami run.)
The circuit dated back to the 1920s with races off the coast of Atlantic City, as well as at venues in Canada, Egypt, Argentina, and throughout Europe. Rules and traditions of the pre-FINA era were different. Marathon swimmers always had escort boats. “Drafting,” or closely following the path of another competitor, was not allowed until the late 1990s.
As originally organized, athletes had a direct role in the most important questions of open water races: how they would be escorted and how the races would be conducted. Water temperature was one, though not the only, safety issue. There were also rules for suspending competition for lightning. There were prohibitions against swimming in hazardous conditions. On occasion, races were called or shortened or changed for safety.
Perhaps most important were the regulations pertaining to escort boats, which were required to have experienced personnel onboard. One boat and one pair of eyes were dedicated to every swimmer.
The athletes who thought the emergence of the FINA Grand Prix would be a positive development — improving the sport’s marketing profile and overall professionalism — were disappointed. Prize money decreased over time, as did the number of races. FINA’s Technical Open Water Swimming Committee, or TOWSC, devised rules for the responsibilities of FINA officials, but only scantily addressed safety. Those issues were left for the local race organizers to figure out, or not.
For popular dramatic focus and in order to have a reasonable chance to be accepted into the Olympic Games, the primary race distance was decreased from 25 to 10 kilometers. This was not in itself a bad thing. But the construction of circular 2.5-kilometer courses, which could be rounded four times in an Olympic rowing basin or other such future Olympic venue, also contributed to the false sense that one-on-one “eyes on the swimmer” had become a superfluous concept, rather than a core safety principle. Nor was there widespread awareness among pool swimming coaches or training in how to deal with hyperthermia (overheated body) or hypothermia (sudden drop in body temperature from exposure to extreme conditions). Among pool coaches who were now increasingly drawn to another Olympic event, there was little formalized knowledge or experience on the importance of acclimatizing and adapting the athletes to extreme cold or extreme warm water and air temperatures (a price that would be heavily paid by Crippen, who did most of his training in generic long-distance pool drills).
But with open water’s elevation to Olympic sport status in 2008, complaints were drowned.
In a brutal irony, Fran Crippen was described as the leading swimmer in the push for safety values. Crippen was not the oldest active athlete, but he was among the savviest and the one with the most political presence among the rank and file.
When Crippen lapsed into permanent unconsciousness on October 23, 2010, in waters off Fujairah exceeding 85 degrees Fahrenheit, there wasn’t even an official American coach present at this final event of the year in FINA’s 10K series. (One coach, Jack Fabian, was on site because he had a daughter of minor age competing, but he was not a representative of USA Swimming.)
USA Swimming did fly in an official, Jack Roach, to claim Crippen’s corpse and accompany it home. And chief executive Chuck Wielgus paid his respects at Crippen’s funeral in Pennsylvania.
As for meaningful reforms — not so much. Even before the Crippen tragedy, efforts by Americans and Australians to reinforce existing safety rules had gotten stonewalled by Flavio Bomio, the influential Swiss Olympic coach. (Today Bomio is in prison for … surprise … sex abuse of his swimmers.)
Outrageously, and consistent with the lack of action in the year following Crippen’s death, the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China, were more controversial than the one in which Crippen fell. With water temperature soaring above 31 degrees Centigrade (nearly 88 Fahrenheit) — hotter and more humid than in the Dubai disaster — the FINA representatives represented to the athletes and coaches that there was nothing to worry about.
While Bomio spent much of the six-hour competition in an air-conditioned tent, more than half the field were pulled out or hospitalized even as the race was moved to the early morning hours to skirt the midday heat. Swimmers and coaches were outraged; the two reigning world 25K champions — Alex Meyer of the USA and Linsy Heister of the Netherlands — refused to even start the race. So did Thomas Lurz of Germany.
In other sports, death in competition prompted immediate reforms. In FINA’s case, not only were the changes taking an inexcusably long time, but the officials were insisting, in defiance of evidence of even worse conditions, that the course and climate were acceptable.
Even the winner of the race, Bulgaria’s Petar Stoychev, expressed shock and disappointment that the competition had been allowed continued for its entire 25K distance.
Fast-forward to 2014: FINA vice president Dale Neuburger (a long-time USA Swimming board member and one-time president) once again steered an event to the United Arab Emirates, scene of the Crippen crime, under the guidance of race director Ayman Saad. Neuburger’s Indianapolis consulting company pocketed another tidy fee from the local organizers for their successful bid.
In sum, accountability for an avoidable death rests at nil.