Brent Rutemiller wrote a commentary on FINA’s follow-up to the tragic death of Fran Crippen who died in a FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup event in the United Arab Emirates in 2010.

His commentary is posted here.

Rutemiller‘s observation is that FINA has yet to legislate a standard on a maximum water temperature. In his words, “FINA has failed to decree a degree.”

But the matter goes deeper as athletes greatly deserve the respect and support of those responsible for the sport.

1. FINA touted its 2011 world championships, finding nothing inherently problematic or potentially wrong in a competition that was held in excess of its own guidelines (i.e., 31ºC or 87.8ºF). When its own 25 km race was held in 32ºC (89.6ºF) water, even while athletes were voluntarily and involuntarily stopping and receiving medical attention, all practical meaning of its own guidelines became moot.

Currently, FINA’s guidelines regarding extreme water temperatures are dependent upon the interpretations of FINA’s appointed physicians. Even when these individuals are well-meaning knowledgeable medical professionals, how every human body reacts after 3, 4, 5, 6 or more hours in extreme conditions is not always predictable.

2. FINA dismissed complaints by athletes, coaches and administrators when they questioned holding competitions in water than was warmer than the conditions that killed Fran Crippen. Instead of criticizing shareholders in the open water world and those who question safety parameters, listening and incorporating recommendations would help develop a safer and more inclusive sport.

3. When #1 and #2 occur in an environment where FINA asserts its authority in the global aquatics world, unintended problems occur.

Because a vast majority of the national governing bodies simply follow FINA rules and guidelines without question, this means that many of the world’s open water races and national governing bodies similarly have no rules regarding extreme water temperatures. So while safety standards have increased greatly within FINA’s own races, its influence over the open water swimming world remains great. If FINA judges its athletes can compete in 32ºC (89.6ºF) water, then many open water races and national governing bodies make the same assumption. But while FINA’s athletes are generally young, fit and svelte, athletes who experience problems in extreme temperatures tend to be older, much less fit and definitely not svelte. If FINA would tighten up its rules on extreme water temperatures, then the national governing bodies around the world would also do the same. When FINA defaults on its leadership responsibilities, unintended consequences occur in the open water world and dozens of people who die in open water swims may have been saved.

4. FINA was presented with a written list of recommendations from dozens of its top professional athletes. Many of these athletes were the same individuals who swam around the venue in Dubai looking for the body of Fran Crippen who was not found for two hours. FINA did not have the courtesy to send a formal reply – or even a note that it received these recommendations – to these young athletes. We cannot imagine another sport where athletes who looked for a deceased competitor in the field of play – and then be so cavalierly treated.

5. Experienced athletes, coaches, race directors, administrators and referees understand to expect the unexpected in the open water. Things happen, accidents occur, plans go awry even in the best of situations and venues.

The unexpected is the norm – which is why the collective experiences of open water swimmers are so vital and valuable to FINA. To leave decisions and recommendations to scientists and researchers from the IOC or triathlon federations makes no sense to us. As Swimming World reports, “Cornel Marculescu, chief executive of FINA, [stated] ‘It is very important that (what) happens now is that we get the technical committee working this week with the IOC sports medicine committee and the triathlon federation…. We will establish a working group because we need to have a scientific basis for the temperature levels.'”

But no extent of laboratory tests or research projects in chlorinated pools will replicate what can – and will – happen in open water competitions. While scientists and triathlon administrators are well-meaning, they conduct experiments and research in controlled environments holding certain elements constant. What happens in the open water can be unexpected and unpredictable. In the real world, open water competitions are held in dynamic bodies of water where human elements (swimmers, volunteers and escort pilots), marine life (sharks, bacteria and jellyfish) and climatic conditions are extraordinarily varied and unpredictable.

What happened to Fran Crippen and what happened to dozens of other open water athletes who have died or been seriously injured over the past few years is unpredictable. Research by learned professionals can certainly provide guidelines as to what can be expected and what is predictable. However, research by FINA and the triathlon community does not tell us what is unexpected and unpredictable. Governing bodies and organizing committee are wise to establish safety parameters and safety nets based on what CAN go wrong, not what is predicted in a laboratory setting.

6. In FINA’s last two world championships, in Rome in 2009 and in Shanghai in 2011, race officials have had to rescue two open water swimmers from going under. Yet it was the death of Fran Crippen that truly set into motion a vast number of enhanced safety protocols, procedures and policies that the global open water swimming community is currently executing, enforcing and encouraging.

In light of the Fran’s legacy, race directors around the world – to their credit – are listening to the collective voice of athletes.

So while FINA was the focus of Rutemiller’s commentary, the reality is that welcomed changes in the sport have come – and will continue to come – in the vacuum of leadership by FINA.

Photo shows the effect of heat and sun on Trent Grimsey who competed in the 2011 world championships in Shanghai’s 32ºC water.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source