Tuesday October 26th, 2010

After the World Championships in Rome last summer when he won a bronze medal in the 10-kilometer open water swim event, Fran Crippen talked glowingly about how the open-water event essentially revived his career.

"I might have stopped without it," he told SI in Rome. "It was like a second life."

Crippen's death last weekend during a race in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates raises questions about safety standards for the event, especially since temperatures were said to be above 90 degrees in the U.A.E. that day. According to some reports, Crippen had even told his coaches before the race that he did not feel well. Yet Crippen's death only reinforced the memories of how he embraced life. He seemed like an athlete happily playing with house money in a second existence, grateful for the twist that had taken him from the chlorine to the saltwater.

Crippen, 26, had dreamed of making the Olympics from age 8 and had come from a family of swimmers, including oldest sister Maddy, who swam in the Olympic trials in 2000. After a strong career at the University of Virginia, where he was an 11-time All-America and team captain, Fran first pursued his career in the distance events of the 50-meter pool. He had won a pair of silver medals at the 2003 Pan Am Games in Santo Domingo in both the 400- and 1,500-meter races. But he took to the emerging open-water events and was sure he could make the Beijing Olympic team after ending the 2007 season ranked fourth in the world. He missed out, but re-dedicated himself by swimming up to 20 kilometers a day and setting his sights on the London Games. He had been planning a vacation to Italy with his girlfriend after the Fujairah race.

Anyone in the swim world who knew him seemed to like Crippen.

"We lost a great person and swimmer today in the tragic loss," Michael Phelps wrote on his Facebook page. "My thoughts and prayers are with his entire family."

Phelps' coach Bob Bowman added: "Words cannot express my sorrow for the Crippen family and all the countless people who loved Fran. He was one of our best."

Megan Jendrick, a double gold medalist from the 2000 Games, called Crippen a "great swimmer, and even better person. He will be missed and will always be remembered."

*****

Women's ski jumping is not the only new event or classification up for consideration on the 2014 Olympic sports program. Others up for inclusion are slopestyle snowboard and alpine freestyle events, ski half-pipe, a mixed biathlon relay and team events in luge and figure skating. Women jumpers have been the most vocal in their attempt to join the Olympics, and there is some resentment among IOC members that the women tried to circumvent IOC protocol by filing a lawsuit to get themselves added for the Vancouver Games. The move may ultimately prove more harmful than helpful as the IOC considers its fate. Still, expect the event to be added in time for Sochi, so long as things go smoothly at worlds this season.

Lindsey Van of the U.S. won the ski jumping competition last year when the event was contested at the championships for the first time in Liberec, Czech Republic, but women have had a Continental Cup circuit since 2005. Women will join the regular FIS World Cup circuit next year.

*****

Some assorted thoughts and notes from the World Gymnastic Championships in Rotterdam last week ...

Rarely have two gymnasts so clearly distanced themselves from the field in winning all-around titles. Kohei Uchimura won his competition by more than two full points, and as all-around bronze medalist Jonathan Horton said of Uchimura's injured shoulder, "bad shoulder, bad arms, no arms, he's the best by far." Aliya Mustafina qualified for all four event finals and took home medals in three of them. Had she won a medal on beam, she would have been the first woman since Olga Korbut and Lyudmilla Turischeva of the former Soviet Union in 1974 to win six medals at a world championship.

**

The U.S. men absolutely must upgrade their pommel horse routines or reset their roster to have a chance for a team medal in London. The team made huge strides, going from 13th place at the 2006 worlds to third at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but the fourth-place showing in Rotterdam could have been better, if not for the fumbles they had on the pommel horse. Chris Brooks, Chris Cameron and Danell Leyva all suffered breaks and scored in the 13s during the team final. Their total score of 40.032 was the lowest of any of the eight teams on any one apparatus.

The men are on par with every squad in the world on a couple of disciplines, such as high bar and vault, an event that has often been weak in the past. But the days when the U.S. could win multiple medals on pommels at an Olympics (see Peter Vidmar and Tim Daggett in Los Angeles) are long gone. If Paul Hamm continues his comeback, he could be one of the three members on pommels in the team finals. Tim McNeil, a former standout at Cal, could also help the team out if he returns for the London Games.

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You're never too old, even in a young person's sport such as gymnastics. Ask Germany's Oksana Chusovitina or Norway's Espen Jansen. Chusovitina, 35 years young, has competed at worlds since 1991, when she debuted for The Unified Team, a sort of transition squad as the Soviet Union broke into individual republics. She has since represented her native Uzbekistan, moved to Germany, become a mother, won a silver on vault at the Beijing Olympics and dedicated herself to one more Olympic appearance in London. She doesn't perform the round-off Yurchenko vaults that other top vaulters use, opting instead for front handspring entry and Tsukahara vaults. She has won eight of her ten world medals on the apparatus.

Jansen will turn 42 in December, but was back at worlds, because, he says, "there is nothing I enjoy more than training and convincing my body it can do the impossible."

Neither gymnast reached any individual finals in Rotterdam (Chusovitina recorded a high score of 13.566 on beam; Jansen recorded a high of 13.366 on parallel bars), but their remarkable ability to still compete is a direct slight at Father Time.

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The Australian women must have had Georgia on their minds. The team included Georgia Bonora, Georgia Wheeler and Georgia Simpson.

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New Zealand gymnast Holly Moon made it to Rotterdam despite having to switch gyms a month before the championships after her gym in Christchurch was destroyed in an earthquake.

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Don't be surprised by a resurgence in the Romanian women's program over the next couple of years. Octavian Belu, the coach and guru of the team's program for nearly three decades, has come out of retirement to lead the team into London. Belu is overseeing the national squad in Romania but chose not to operate as head coach in Rotterdam. Ana Porgras won the gold medal on beam for his team.

**

Though not as petite as many of her rivals on the uneven bars, Britain's Beth Tweddle won gold in the event with a superb routine that included seven flight elements from bar to bar. The apparatus has gradually become better suited for the small and the light, but Tweddle bucked a trend to win gold with a routine that had a 6.8 difficulty level.

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And who says only the gymnastics powers win major world medals. Not only did Britain's Tweddle take home bars gold, but Australia's Lauren Mitchell captured gold on floor, Thomas Bouhail won France's first world gold on the vault and hometown favorite Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands had the lead until the last competitor on high bar, and ended up taking silver behind China's Zhang Chenglong.

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