Ian Prichard, competitive distance swimmer and writer, has delivered a powerful tribute about his friend Fran Crippen, who died last year while racing in the warm waters of the United Arab Emirates over a 10 kilometer course. The essay, Beyond Limit: A Friend And Competitor Tries To Make Sense Of The Loss Of A Swimming Star, takes us into the training and the mentality it takes to do endurance swimming. It shows what we can do with our minds, pushing our body to the limits and sometimes beyond. Prichard’s piece brings us the other side of previous posts here on sports and our extreme adaptability, including Greg’s epic post on free diving and living in and on the water and the techniques Paula Radcliffe uses to endure the pain of a marathon.
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.
This next section, tucked in late in the essay which provides us both a biography of Crippen and an explanation of endurance swimming, captures well what these athletes do, and how what they accomplish is such a neuroanthropological thing – the social nature of competitive athletics, the techniques and skills athletes draw on to push their bodies and mind further, the consequences on their bodies, both for good and bad, and how those consequences happen socially, not just individually.
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.
I highly recommend you read Ian Prichard’s entire piece – Beyond Limit: A Friend And Competitor Tries To Make Sense Of The Loss Of A Swimming Star
There is also a Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation, “to advocate for safety and aid athletes as they elevate themselves.”