Alex Meyer, Swimming Illustrated

Alex Meyer, Swimming Illustrated

I feel very passionately about many of the same things Fran did – obviously [safety], promoting the sport, inspiring younger kids. That gives a whole other level of meaning and purpose to my career,” explained Alex Meyer to ESPN’s Bonnie Ford.

NBC Sports Network will broadcast Sports Illustrated tonight at 9 pm New York time, showcasing the story of Alex Meyer and his unusual intriguing path from New York to Harvard and the London Olympics.

The program on the Olympic Bond between Meyer and Crippen will showcase one of the most heart-rendering back stories among the American team at the 2012 London Olympics. The friendship and mutual respect that Meyer and Crippen developed well before Crippen tragically passed away in a FINA World Cup race in Dubai in 2010 is the foundation for a real-life story that will shock and inspire many.

After the initial news of Crippen’s death and the global outpouring of sympathy, especially in light of Crippen’s previously unknown and behind-the-scenes calls for improved measures of safety, attention and promotion in the sport, the open water swimming community quickly moved to make things better.

Australian administrators established guidelines and rules regarding extreme temperatures and conditions. British Swimming further bolstered its already comprehensive risk-management policies and procedures. USA Swimming took the advice of blue-ribbon panels and implemented new sanctioning requirements and oversight. Mexican Swimming Federation similarly moved to incorporate the advice and practices of experienced marine safety experts.

While Crippen is no longer here, his death triggered a reaction that enabled and encouraged race directors around the world to work harder and more intelligently on minimizing the risks inherent in the sport of open water swimming. Throughout these changes and difficult times, Meyer took the calling that Crippen and he shared to heart. In the media, in administrative committees and behind the scenes, Meyer has been instrumental in keeping Crippen’s legacy alive and pushing for improved safety measures at all levels.

Yet those calls from Crippen and Meyer were inexplicably ignored by the executive leadership of FINA. Despite protests from athletes, coaches and at least one administrator, FINA’s Executive Director Cornel Marculescu allowed the next FINA World Swimming Championships 25 km race – less than one year after Crippen’s death – to be conducted in water temperature greater than the temperature that killed Crippen.

At the world championships in Shanghai, the community was saddened to learn that Marculescu determined that new rules on extreme conditions were not required and guidelines were all that were necessary. For the first time in FINA history, athletes expressed their dismay about questionable safety standards at a world championship, and their worries and complaints were not only ignored, but dismissed outright.

For the first time in FINA history, 3 reigning world champions (Meyer, Linsy Heister and Thomas Lurz) declined to participate in a world championship due to safety issues.

Yet the official FINA response was, “Everything is OK and there are no safety issues.” Marculescu had the audacity to push this position to athletes who had looked for Crippen’s dead body for over 2 hours.

Imagine any other sport where young athletes had to take the initiative and look for the dead body of a popular athlete…then watched as that fellow competitor was pulled lifeless from the water and…then to be told that there are no safety issues in conditions that were WARMER than what killed their friend and fellow competitor.

But Meyer was principled and pissed.

And rightly so.

Yes, Meyer gave up his opportunity to defend his world championship, but it was a small price to pay for principles and to make a statement to FINA, even if his words were ignored. FINA’s post-race report, written by Flavio Bomio and kept confidential, dismissed the concerns of athletes and coaches and ignored the fact that numerous athletes could not finish the race in the 32+°F (90°C) water.

And now almost two years since Crippen’s death, there still remains no FINA rules under Marculescu’s leadership regarding extreme water conditions. Nothing about cold water and nothing about warm water while this issue has been aggressively pushed by national federations and individual race directors around the world. Despite public and private assurances to the contrary, Marculescu has been focused with other issues. In contrast, fortunately and responsibly, federations and race directors around the world have implemented specific rules, guidelines, protocols and procedures to help improve the situation.

But safety is not an issue in the Serpentine under the able helm of Colin Hill and London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympic marathon swim is all about racing fast and racing intelligently. Both of which Meyer can do well.

So well that Sports Illustrated Magazine – America’s most popular and authoritative sports publication – has predicted a bronze medal for Meyer behind Lurz of Germany (gold) and Spyros Gianniotis of Greece (silver). If Meyer wins a medal, expect to see much more about him in America. He is represented by the same agent as Michael Phelps. With a story like no other in a sport like no other, Meyer can pave the way to corporate America and Main Street U.S.A. like no other American open water swimmer before him.

Watch the Olympic Bond program – be prepared to be shocked and inspired – and see how Meyer follows up the program with a performance in Hyde Park on August 10th.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones