Tuesday, October 26, 2010

cautionary tales: Fran Crippen

by now most of you will have heard of the death of Fran Crippen, one of the elites in long-distance open water swimming, who died this past week in a race in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). in case you haven't heard about what happened, you can reference a brief video report released through the Associated Press:
Fran's death in competition has come as a shock to people in the sports community, partly because things like this are not common occurrences in elite-level sports events, partly because he had no apparent history of medical issues, and partly because it runs so contrary to public perceptions of athletes and athletic endeavors in relation to personal health. it's just not expected to hear of elite-level athletes dying in the middle of competition. it's possible to name examples, Reggie Lewis (Boston Celtics of the NBA, who collapsed and died in a game) being a famous one, but the fact that they can be named is an indication of just how rare and unexpected an event like this can be.

which is why Fran's death has become such a concern in the swimming community. there's been a surge of comments in the media regarding the potential causes and contributing factors. you can read a selection of articles here (some have also videos):
i won't comment on the veracity or plausibility of the statements in these articles, since 1) i don't know enough to evaluate them and 2) the investigations (at the minimum, by USA Swimming, FINA, and UAE) are still ongoing and i want to give them a chance to produce their findings. i will, however, comment on some things which i think relate to sports at large.

to begin, i'll offer my observations on the news reports:
  1. something was not right. and i mean wrong. in law, they use the term "res ipsa loquitur," meaning that "the thing speaks for itself." used in association with tort cases, it references the idea that there are some events which just don't occur without cause, and hence that there was some negligence or mistake involved. i think this is one of those events. from what is known, the situation involved a young man (age 26) with no known history of medical problems (as far as we know) in a state of supreme fitness (Fran was an elite multi-sport athlete--not only was he among the top long-distance swimmers in the world, he was also a very good runner, having qualified for the Boston marathon). this suggests that whatever happened, it didn't happen with him, but rather with the race itself.
  2. race conditions were unusual. perhaps not for Abu Dhabi, where it was held, but certainly for long-distance swimming. Fran reportedly told his coach the ambient air temperature was >100 degrees F and the ambient water temperature was around >87 degrees F. ocean temperatures typically vary, with patches of water having varying degrees of warmth or cold. this means that given the distances involved, the swimmers at the race probably went through sections of water above and below 87 degrees F.
  3. swimming in warm water is hard. very hard. and 87 degrees F is very warm water. it's analogous to running in temperatures >100 degrees F. water that warm acts as an insulator, meaning that it makes it hard for the body to release heat through perspiration, accelerating the rise in core body temperature caused by physical exertion. this raises the risk of dehydration, overheating, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. on a personal note, i've had swim workouts in a swimming pool used by platform divers kept at ~75 degrees F, and i felt like i was overheating (even though the ambient air temperature was ~65 degrees F). i can't imagine what's it like to be swimming in water above 80.
  4. athletes who have not acclimated to heat will struggle more in warm conditions. this is true for runners, and i suspect true for swimmers. i don't entirely know for certain, but some news reports indicate that Fran had been training in the coastal waters of Southern California, which are notoriously cold (especially this past summer, with water temperatures around 55-60 degrees F). this means that he was used to cold water swimming, and would not have been acclimated to the conditions in the UAE.
  5. regardless of acclimation, given the difficulty in race conditions race organizers should have increased their monitoring of athletes. long-distance swim races do not have "aid stations" like they do for marathons, and athletes are expected to have their own nutrition (typically, they keep gel packs in their swimming suits). but i'm starting to think they should. in long-distance running, race organizers provide aid stations for specific reasons: a) provide medical check-ups of athletes, and b) provide nutrition, including fluids to help athletes cool. race organizers also have medical observers patrolling the race course. and the tougher the race conditions (i.e., hot days), the more attention is given at both the aid stations and on the race course. even for elite athletes. given the demands of distance swimming, i think it would only be logical that race organizers increase their monitoring of athletes and allow hydration, even if only for those athletes in distress.
  6. the temptation for race organizers is to treat elite athletes as an exception to race management, that because the competitors are supreme physical specimens that it allows race organizers to ease their responsibilities in managing the race. this is a fallacy, because a) elite athletes still require care because they are pushing themselves to the physical limits, and are mentally so driven that they may very well push themselves over the limit (i.e., they may push themselves so hard that they lose their mental faculties, to the extent they cannot recognize when they are trouble or even recognize what is happening), and b) every one deserves a well-managed race--everyone--and no race organizer should ever absolve themselves of their responsibilities to the human lives that have been entrusted to them. legally, i know that many races require athletes to sign liability releases, but i don't think that these releases are blanket licenses for criminal mismanagement and outright dereliction of respect for human life.
  7. the race organizers are quoted as saying that Fran died from "fatigue." i don't buy that for a second. who are they kidding? an experienced world-class athlete facing the premier event of his race season? fatigued? there must have been an error in translation or a mis-statement by someone unfamiliar with sports medicine or a poor transcription from a news reporter, because it just doesn't make sense.
apart from this, i also want to say that what happened brings up an issue that i've written about before: knowing when to quit.

if elite athletes are saying race conditions are tough, then it is tough. in which case, everyone involved--race organizers, athlete support crew, even athletes themselves--all should be making efforts for better care and greater caution. this means that a) somebody should have said something at Abu Dhabi, and 2) somebody should have done something.

i don't mean they should have called the race off (although it appears that after Fran's death and athlete complaints about the race conditions, a later longer-distance race at the same location was canceled), but i do think that at the very minimum race organizers should have taken note to increase their precautions. and i also think that support crew (including coaches, trainers, doctors, etc.) and competitors should have escalated their concerns about racing, even if it meant going so far as to make individual decisions to quit or perhaps not even start (the dreaded "DNF" and "DNS," respectively)--or having someone make the decision for them to do so.

this latter point is something that probably runs contrary to the popular perception of athletic spirit. as an athlete it's sometimes hard to make a decision regarding quitting. it's not a value that sports encourages. if anything, sport is about the opposite: persistence in face of all challenges. and in the heat of competition, with the build-up of expectations carried over from training, the will to persevere can be overwhelming.

my argument, however, is that sometimes this kind of mindset can lead to a loss of perspective. sports is, among other things, about developing persistence, and this is laudable in terms of personal character development. that, however, is where the dividing line can be identified and is the reference point from which we can locate perspective: development. sports gives us values for a purpose, and that purpose is about making ourselves better. physically. mentally. spiritually. as all-around human beings. it is not about self-debilitation. it is not about self-destruction. it is not about death.

it is because of this that i believe we as athletes have to take time outside of training and racing to figure at what point we are willing to quit...and, because we sometimes push ourselves to states where we lose our mental faculties, when we are willing to accept someone else making us do so.

we can't trust race organizers to do these things for us--what happened in Abu Dhabi is a clear example of this--even though they may be responsible. to protect ourselves from whatever negligence or mistake may be made by others, we have to take the precaution of deciding for ourselves (hopefully, when our faculties are clear and our perspectives are in order) when discretion is the better part of valor and when we are willing to accept something as being self-destructive versus being self-constructive. and then we have to commit to following through on our decisions on race day.

i've written about this before, and referenced some cautionary tales from Ironman. you can read my thoughts here:
the reason i'm stressing this is that as athletes we sometimes become centered on ourselves, particularly in terms of how we're feeling and how we're acting. the resulting tendency is to become self-centered, sometimes to the extent we lose track of everything else around us.

which is fine to a degree, since sports is about self-development. but we are more than just athletes; we are also human beings. and sports is meant to be about development that complements living as human beings...and human life is never about only ourselves, but also about everyone else around us, particularly others who are close to us in our lives.

in which case, we have to be mindful of what we represent to others and the value our presence has in their lives. as such, being self-destructive isn't just about hurting ourselves but also about hurting everyone else in our lives; it's about making the world worse. conversely, being self-constructive isn't just about improving ourselves but also about improving the lives of others around us; it's about making the world better.

and if the worst possible circumstance comes to pass and our time on this earth really does come to an end, which of these possibilities do we want to be the testament to our lives? which of these do we want to have given our best efforts? which of these do we want others to get from us?

No comments: