~By Gary Hall Sr., The Race Club
Last week, the world lost one of its finest distance and open water swimmers, Fran Crippen. His body was apparently discovered submerged just 400 meters or so from the finish line, hours after the completion of the FINA open water race near Dubai.
The water was allegedly very warm for competition, with temperatures reported at 84 degrees Fahrenheit or higher by others. The air temperature was allegedly near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Several athletes ended up in the hospital after the race from dehydration or heat exhaustion. I don't know too many other details about the race other than it was a circuit course of around 2 miles and that there were some race supervisors on jetskis, but exactly how many, I do not know.
When I first learned of Fran's death, my first thought was 'this should not have happened'. Open water swimming has its inherent risks. One of the mystiques and intrigues about this fast growing sport is that one has to deal with a wide range of conditions; warm water, cold water, wind, waves, current, poor visibility, jelly fish, sharks, seaweed...just to name a few. Somehow, I cannot bring myself to believe that when considering this particular race, involving young talented swimmers among the most physically fit on the planet, that death by drowning should be one of the risks.
I suppose anything is possible. Fran could have had a cardiac arrhythmia or even a myocardial infarction, although the likelihood of either at his age and condition would be extremely rare. But if either had been the case, I would have preferred to hear that they could not resuscitate him after pulling him from water seconds or even minutes after he stopped swimming. Instead, they found him on the bottom.
The most likely cause of this tragedy is heat stroke, whereby one is sending so much blood to the muscle and skin in an attempt to reduce core body temperature, that not enough oxygen gets to the brain and one blacks out. Heat stroke is not uncommon when air or water temperatures are in the range reported in Dubai that day. Heat stroke can come on so quickly that often there is no time to prepare...no warning. Similar to shallow water blackout in free diving, loss of consciousness can occur very quickly. When it does, there had better be someone nearby to pull the body out of the water. Otherwise, within a few minutes, death will occur from drowning.
Since moving to the Florida Keys five years ago, I have known two experienced divers who drowned from shallow water blackout. I have heard of two others who were saved by having a buddy pull them out of the water immediately. In all of these cases, experience or fitness had little or nothing to do with the loss of consciousness. Supervision or lack of it had everything to do with survival.
I know nothing about the rules of supervision in FINA open water competition. Sometimes it takes a tragedy of this magnitude for rules to change. Perhaps there should be much more supervision required. Perhaps there should be limits on allowable competition in extreme conditions like in Dubai that day. I don't know. But I cannot help wondering if Fran would not still be with us if someone had been there to pull him out when he suddenly stopped swimming.
I cannot imagine what it must be like for the Crippen family to have to experience the loss of Fran.The Crippens are like the Halls. They live and breathe swimming. Maddy swam with Gary Jr on the 2000 Olympic Team. They are all accomplished athletes. I did not know Fran personally, but everyone who did is heartbroken. He was a tremendous human being. Losing Fran was a great loss to the world...and not just to the swimming world.
Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.