Christine Jennings, who also swam in the 10K in which Fran Crippen died, spoke to the Washington Post about race conditions and her own experience, suggesting that both the warm water and a lack of race support likely contributed to Crippen’s death:
The other American, Christine Jennings, said she vomited several times in the water. Jennings, 23, got dizzy and veered off course. Fearing she would black out, she turned over and swam on her back with an arm in the air to signal her distress to the safety boats that are supposed to follow the swimmers in such races.
But when no one responded, Jennings struggled to the finish, where she staggered out of the water with the help of a fellow swimmer and was taken to a hospital.
“It was a disaster,” she said. “I’m floating on my back for several minutes, thinking ‘Why isn’t anybody checking on me?’ “
Jennings said she noticed a referee’s boat and several people on jet skis before the race, but not as many as typically patrol the water given swimmers’ vulnerability to extreme temperatures, jellyfish stings and other problems. U.S. teammate Eva Fabian, 17, rode in the same ambulance as Jennings to the hospital; both were treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The Post also reports that, according to Crippen’s family, “On a death certificate sent Sunday night from the United Arab Emirates, heat exhaustion and drowning were listed as the causes of Fran Crippen’s death.”
In the LA Times, physician and swimmer Larry Wiesenthal said that “having a 10k (2 hour) race in 86 degree water is criminal.” Wiesenthal explained that dehydration, more than heat, would have been the greatest concern in this race. A swimmer competing at race pace in 86-degree water would sweat profusely, he noted.
With swimming in warm water, you are killed not by heat stroke but by dehydration. More sinister than in running, where you are upright and you’ll faint/pass out in relatively early stages of dehydration, with swimming you are already lying down and can maintain blood flow to your brain. So you won’t pass out until you are so dehydrated that you essentially go into frank shock, with total circulatory collapse.
Could Crippen could have been saved had he been pulled from the water immediately upon collapse and received emergency medical care? It may be impossible to know for certain. However, Jennings stated that she tried to signal for help but that her efforts went unnoticed. Many people have asked whether FINA needs to establish an upper limit on water temperatures, but race support seems to have been just as important an issue in this tragedy.