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What have we learned, 10 years after swimmer Fran Crippen’s avoidable death?

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Everyone who knew Fran Crippen remembers where they were when they heard. Word traveled swiftly from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on Oct. 23, 2010, and it traveled widely. Fran’s personal reach, like his wingspan in the water, was considerable. Sorrow rippled out from his hometown of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and his onetime training base of Mission Viejo, California, and washed over hundreds of athletes and coaches he got to know through national and international competition.

I also remember where I was — alone, driving on a pristine fall day, admiring the brilliant color of the trees flowing by. I stopped, for some reason that escapes me, and looked at my phone.

The news was incomprehensible. Elite swimmers didn’t just drown. They didn’t slip away unseen in a race, with dozens of people around them — fellow competitors, officials, volunteers — on the course. Did they? Fran was 26, a sculpted athlete in his prime.

I called my editor. “There’s something not right here,” I said.

Fran Crippen and I never met. I began to tell his story only after his death. And yet Fran influenced me as a journalist as much or more as any athlete I’ve ever covered, leading me down paths that were both dark and inspiring. He was that compelling of a person. Still is.

There are stories you do out of obligation, and stories you pursue out of passion, and then there are a handful of stories over a career that take you by the shoulders and propel you with no clear idea of where you’re going — and don’t allow you to quit. Fran’s story was all three of those for me.

I’d covered Olympic-level swimming for many years, but back then, I knew next to nothing about Fran’s discipline of marathon, or open-water swimming. Gifted, charismatic and generous, Fran was poised to put his niche sport on the map in the United States. The 10-kilometer event had been elevated to Olympic status in time for the 2008 Beijing Games. Fran won a bronze medal at the world championships the following year and took aim at the 2012 Summer Games in London. The Fujairah event was part of the 10K Grand Prix series that offered one of the only opportunities to compete against other top open-water athletes.

In the days after his death I spent time at Germantown Academy in suburban Philadelphia, where Fran and his three sisters had all excelled in the pool. The oldest, Maddy, had world-class talent and made an Olympic final in 2000. She raced to her parents’ home in the early-morning hours of Oct. 23 so they wouldn’t be alone. She also acted as the family spokesperson in the immediate aftermath, and met with me in a downtown coffee shop, where I marveled at her fierce composure.

I tracked down other swimmers who had been in the race. They described a nonexistent safety net on a day when the water and ambient air temperature were both dangerously hot, a potentially lethal combination for swimmers churning at race pace for two hours or more. Bravely, with controlled anger and resolve, his U.S. teammate Alex Meyer took me through the day minute-by-minute and made me feel the horror of seeing his friend’s lifeless body recovered after an inexcusably delayed search.

The tragedy became the subject of two investigations, an independent probe commissioned by USA Swimming and a separate one by FINA, swimming’s international governing body. Both concluded that Fran died because of a confluence of factors, extreme heat and organizer negligence being primary among them.

Inexplicably, there was no upper temperature ceiling in place for events at the time. There is now, but the standard (31 degrees Celsius, or 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit) is still vulnerable to manipulation by officials who measure it two hours before the start time and are often reluctant to call a halt to racing.

In more than one major event in recent years, the onus has fallen on swimmers to withdraw when they feel conditions are unsafe, rather than having organizers make the right decision. The issue arose again at the August 2019 Olympic 10K test event in Tokyo Bay.

Fran’s mother, Pat Crippen, put it better than I ever could in an email to me this week:

“While considerable progress has been made since 10/23/10 and I am very grateful for that, I wish I could say Fran’s death has changed the course of OW swimming with total focus on the safety of the athlete, but when I hear of races still being held under questionable conditions, when I hear it’s up to swimmers to pull out of races because of unacceptable conditions, I am disheartened.”

What Fran’s death did make immutable was the presence of adequate safety personnel on the course — or in the sport’s shorthand, “eyes on swimmers.” There’s no way to eliminate risk from a sport where dozens of variables can come into play on any given day, or predict when an athlete might become ill or suffer a serious cardiac or respiratory problem. Getting to swimmers within seconds of the first sign of trouble is crucial. The typical field in an elite open-water race is small enough to keep eyes on every athlete.

As I reported on those investigations and reform efforts throughout 2011 and the lead-up to London 2012, I kept stumbling across reports of amateur triathletes dying in the swim portion of events. That, too, brought me up short — why were fatalities happening at the beginning of an endurance event, rather than the end?

The knowledge and conviction I had developed in covering Fran’s story led me to do a yearlong investigation of those deaths, compiling my own database and doing dozens of interviews. I felt driven by Fran’s memory the entire time, and for that, I feel indebted. I hope my work had a lasting effect on how the industry approaches water safety and how participants prepare for events.

“Sometimes lack of oversight can endanger grown athletes as well, as it did in the completely avoidable tragedy in Fujairah 10 years ago, where 50 swimmers survived conditions unsuitable for racing, and one did not.” Bonnie D. Ford

Fran’s story taught me to be even more vigilant and professionally skeptical about the relationship of Olympic sport federations and athletes, and not to take for granted that leaders in those sports always act in the athletes’ best interests. I used to presume that officials would adhere to a basic duty of care, if only to protect themselves. I was wrong.

When a sport is included in the Olympics, it dramatically ups the stakes and desire for young men and women who will single-mindedly chase glory, sometimes at their own peril. The message in many sports boils down to: Trust us with your kids. We’ll take care of them. But sports entities don’t always hold up their end of the bargain. We’ve seen that play out in the most extreme way in sexual abuse cases in youth sports, where the power imbalance is stark. But sometimes lack of oversight can endanger grown athletes as well, as it did in the completely avoidable tragedy in Fujairah 10 years ago, where 50 swimmers survived slipshod organization and conditions unsuitable for racing, and one did not.

The day of Fran’s funeral, people who had loved and admired him went to pools, lakes and shorelines wherever they were and cast flowers on the water. Currents carried the blossoms away, but Fran has stayed present for many. This week, I received a message — unsolicited — from Belgian swimmer Brian Ryckeman, who finished third in the race where Fran perished.

“Fran was a big inspiration to me and had a big impact on my swimming career and still in my life. Even after 10 years I still think about him very often. And I hope swimmers from this generation will hear all about his story and his life. I’m the father now of a beautiful daughter. Fran and I have the same age. I was talking to my wife last week, we wondered how his life would have been. I think it’s important for all of us, and for the sport, that we learn from this. I’m coaching now and all my kids, age 8 to 20, know about this story.”

Fran was not the only member of his family imbued with staying power. The Crippens have continued their dignified, classy, and very real journey without their beloved son and brother mainly in private. But they also established a foundation in his name — the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation — that advocates for water safety and awards grants to athletes who channel his spirit.

His mother, Pat, personally reads the grant applications. This is what she wrote me about the essay authors:

“It’s clear to me that while they did not know Fran personally, they know his story and not just about his tragic death. They wrote about his resilience, his focus, his hard work and determination. This I find heartwarming and mostly what I want them to remember about Fran. I know for certain that Fran would say this is his legacy.”

Through her eyes and those of so many others, I humbly agree.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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