"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
-- Walden, Henry David Thoreau
From the sandy shore of Walden Pond, dotted with sunbathers, soccer players, splashing infants and nature lovers, Alex Meyer tentatively wades into the drink. The water, a crisp 68 degrees on this balmy mid-afternoon in May, creeps up his legs, over his knees to his waist.
"Just dive in. It only hurts for a minute," says a fisherman, floating his boat ashore with the day's catch.
Meyer breaks into a wide smile as he adjusts his goggles under a black swim cap printed with a white H on a crimson crest. As he has done countless times before, he inhales deeply and plunges into the water, embarking on his second swim of the day. Fifty meters away, Tim Murphy sits in a lime green kayak, and together the coach and swimmer navigate the still waters of Walden Pond.
The pond, bound by the vibrant verdure of the New England forest that famously inspired Henry David Thoreau, has become a popular natural hideaway. John Small, an electrician from Westford, Mass., has come to the shores of Walden on his way home from work nearly every day for the last 23 years. "It's like a summer camp for adults," he says, taking out a pair of flippers and a thermometer from a worn navy knapsack. He knows where all the regulars are situated around the 1.8-mile circumference, and as the green kayak approaches the shore, he plods out to greet Meyer, who has just finished a second tour of the lake.
"He's one of our Olympians," Small says proudly to a nearby observer.
Once a symbol of solitude, Walden has become a haven to athletes, from the weekend triathletes who show up from all across western Massachusetts to Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, who might tour the surrounding forest while visiting nearby Boston. Meyer, who will represent the U.S. in the open-water swim in London, has turned Walden into his training spot. When the weather is cooperative, the 24-year-old Harvard graduate makes the 20-minute drive from Cambridge to Concord three times a week to swim in nature's pool.
The open-water race is unlike any other Olympic swimming event. Contested in natural bodies of water -- ponds, lakes, inlets, even oceans -- open water would be akin to a marathon; that is, if runners were allowed to surreptitiously hip check each other in the pack. There are few controllable factors: no regulated water temperature, no lane lines to keep competitors safely separated. The 10-kilometer race, more than six times as long as the 1,500 meters, the longest race to be contested at the London Aquatics Centre, takes nearly two hours for the world's best to complete, and is a daunting test of endurance. The gold medal winning time in Beijing, where open water made its Olympic debut, was 1:51:51.6, swum by Maarten van der Weijden of Holland. It's a blistering pace, averaging just 33.5 seconds per 50-meter split. The race is so physically taxing that in Beijing, silver medalist David Davies of Great Britain, who lost gold by a mere 1.5 seconds, had to be carried off on a stretcher at the end. No wet suits, no chlorinated pools. Open water is swimming at its most elemental.
In London, the event will be held in front of 4,000 ticketed fans at the Serpentine in Hyde Park, which will be open to the public during the event. Thousands more will likely line the lake to watch the 25 swimmers traverse the one-mile loop six times. Since qualifying for the Olympics last summer by finishing fourth in the world open-water championships in Shanghai, Meyer has imagined what it would be like to touch out on top in London -- not just for himself, but also for Fran.
Fran Crippen had a laugh that could brighten a room, one as hearty and exuberant as his personality. The University of Virginia distance swimming standout was the type to go out of his way to greet an acquaintance, the kind to think of others first. He was an intense competitor in the water, but a bucket of laughs on dry land. A rising star of the U.S. Open Water Swimming program, he was a six-time national champion in the 10K and a bronze medalist at the 2009 worlds. But on Oct. 23, 2010, on a sweltering Saturday off the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, the 26-year-old Crippen dove into the water in a 10K race and never made it back to shore alive. His death hit the tight-knit swimming community like a tidal wave. It hit Meyer even harder.
They had first met on the Virginia campus in 2006, when Meyer, a recruit out of Ithaca, N.Y., bunked with Crippen, then a senior, on Meyer's official visit to Charlottesville. The stay was nothing out of the ordinary, and Meyer chose to attend Harvard instead. But years later, as teammates on the open-water swimming circuit, they quickly forged a strong friendship. From their first trip as roommates, to Rome for the 2009 world championships, where Crippen won bronze in the 10K and Meyer swam the grueling 25K, the two immediately clicked.
"You know how everything is smaller in Europe? The sinks, the elevators, the TVs, the food," Meyer prefaces his story. "Well, we get into this room, this tiny room with two tiny little beds that are separated by like [a few inches]. And you know, getting a group of people who don't really know each other can be a little awkward, and so it had kind of been like that. We still knew nothing about each other, really. But we get into this room and drop our bags and lay down on our beds because we're both exhausted.
"And then we look over at each other, and we're like, this far apart," he says, lifting his hands separated by just an inch. "We both just burst out laughing, like, 'Sup, man?'"
From there, the laughs multiplied with every trip. The following summer, after Meyer graduated from Harvard, they spent the better part of three months by each other's side, globe-trotting to meets in Hong Kong, Cancun, Quebec. They traveled to compete, but they were also there to see the world. With his FlipCam in hand, Meyer would chronicle their daily adventures, through street markets in China or bus rides through the Arabian desert. He has more than 200 videos from those months stored on his computer, the casual moments of a good life shared.
"We were both appreciative that we got to do what we got to do," Meyer says. "I was drawn to him because he was like a big brother, had been through this stuff before. And he taught me a whole lot. ... I don't know why he liked me."
Meyer looked up to Crippen, a figure brimming with a likeable confidence. And like Crippen, Meyer had never shied from hard work. In the pool, he was brought up on sheer mileage, relished the opportunity to push his body to its limits. The two shared, above all, a tremendous work ethic, demanded so much of themselves, and they could appreciate that same dedication in others.
"Swimming a 25K, I mean, come on," says Pat Crippen, Fran's mother. "I think Fran just thought that was awesome, that he would undertake that."
Endurance racing has always suited Meyer, even as a youngster. He recalls his first coach in Ithaca, Roy Staley, regaling his team with tales of Claire De Boer, who swam the 38-mile-long Cayuga Lake in central New York in 1984. "I just thought that was the most badass thing ever," Meyer says.
Though he was never the fastest swimmer, Meyer had the ability to keep pace lap after lap after lap. "Physically, he's not an imposing figure. He's just not," Murphy says of the 5-foot-11, 155-pound Meyer. "But he's got a big drive engine."
It takes a certain temperament to find excitement in extreme distances, one that enjoys testing the boundaries of body and mind. A 25K race, which is not on the Olympic program and likely never will be, takes more than five hours to complete, and Meyer has competed in two of them. He won a gold medal in the 25K at worlds in 2010.
"Endurance races are so different from a sprint," he says. "Everyone starts off and it's cool, and then it's just this darkness sets in, and the pain sets in slowly over time, and I don't know. It's just about survival, man."
He recalls Hall, the marathoner, once saying that he tries to run himself into another state of being. "I can really relate to that," Meyer says.
Maybe one day, when he's ready to pack his suits and goggles for good, he says, he'll swim the length of Cayuga Lake.
In his childhood room in Ithaca, there is a bright blue kickboard sitting on top of some bookshelves collecting dust. The foam body is worn, as are the autographs scrawled onto its face. In the summer of 2000, Shawn Meyer took her son and a few of his friends to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. Alex vividly remembers watching Erik Vendt become the first U.S. swimmer to break 15 minutes in the 1,500-meter free.
"It was the most awesome experience of my life," he says. "I remember thinking, 'This is so cool. ... I want to be at this meet.' It was the moment that I decided I wanted to be good at swimming."
It took seven years, but Meyer eventually made it, qualifying for nationals in the 800 free and 1,500 free in 2007. There, back in Indianapolis, his eyes were opened to a whole new level of elite swimming. "It's another world," he says. "You go in thinking, I'm pretty good, and then [there], you suck." He left the meet with a 15th-place finish in the 1,500, but armed with a new dream. It was then that he began to truly consider how cool it would be to wear USA on his cap.
In 2009, Meyer was named to the open-water national team. And though he was no stranger to swimming outdoors, an open-water race can be a different beast. His first few international races were disorienting affairs, surprisingly physical and mentally draining. As much as open water is a test of endurance, it is also a game of strategy. Short on experience, Meyer looked to his veteran teammate for guidance. Crippen immediately took him under his wing.
"His relationship with Fran, I think it accelerated his learning curve," Murphy says. "Fran was his competitor, but Fran was also his friend. And I don't think Fran minded telling Alex anything that would help, even if Alex was on his shoulder."
"Fran saw a lot of potential in Alex," says Maddy Crippen, Fran's sister and a 2000 Olympian in the 400 IM. "And he was the type of person to want to help him succeed no matter what."
At the Pan Pacifics meet in Long Beach, Calif., in August 2010, Crippen noticed that Meyer had fallen behind midway through the race. Knowing that his friend had felt ill earlier that day, Crippen left his place in the lead pack and swam back to check on Meyer. "People probably thought he was crazy for doing that," Maddy says. But when he thought his friend was in distress, Crippen made it a point to be there for him; he literally went the other way to help. Meyer eventually pulled out of the race. Crippen went on to finish second.
Meyer had resolved to go to Fujairah for that race even though he had just undergone an emergency appendectomy a week before. When he was discharged from the hospital, his phone contained a handful of voicemails. "Hurry up and get out of that hospital, man," Crippen said. "I'm not rooming with anybody else."
Maybe, Meyer thought, he would feel well enough to swim -- if not the 10K then perhaps the 15K the following week. But on the morning of Oct. 23, 2010, he knew racing wasn't an option. The temperatures were climbing into the triple digits, and the sun beating down on the sandy terrain of Fujairah made even standing outside uncomfortable. The water in the port was 86 degrees, about average bath water temperature.
At the time, FINA guidelines only included a recommended minimum water temperature, no maximum. Swimming in cold water with no wetsuits can lead to hypothermia, but swimming long distances in extreme heat can be just as damaging. The body's mechanism for cooling -- sweat -- is rendered largely ineffective, and swimming in salt water draws even more water from the body. As the race goes on, every stroke feels more and more labored; even breathing takes added effort. "Imagine what you would feel like if you were locked in a steam room for two hours," Meyer says.
It was too hot for Meyer to race, but he considered manning the feeding station, a floating pontoon where swimmers can stop for water, Gatorade or gel packets to help fend off dehydration. But being out in the sun was nearly unbearable, so Meyer saw the swimmers off and retreated into an air-conditioned restaurant nearby. He would come back out and watch the finish. With just a few meters left to go for the lead pack, Meyer took out his FlipCam and starting shooting from a jetty as the winner stroked in and touched the finish pad.
The 55-second video captures the bodies racing toward the end -- the lead pack, and a second group not far behind. About 30 seconds pass, when over the sounds of clapping and cheering, Meyer's voice can be heard, saying softly, "Where the f--- is Fran?" The picture jerks back and forth, back and forth. "What the hell?" And then the clip ends.
Something was wrong. Crippen should have been among those first finishers, but he wasn't there. So Meyer asked the swimmers as they came in if they had seen his friend. None said they had. He alerted Jack Fabian, a coach and father of one of the female open-water swimmers competing that day. Eva, his daughter, and Christine Jennings were taken to the hospital and treated for exhaustion after the race as well.
Within 10 minutes of the end of the race, shortly after noon, Meyer had set out on a jet ski. He took a couple of laps around the course but didn't see any sign of Crippen. After telling more people on shore, he led an impromptu search. "Basically, we tried to do this s----- search, just the swimmers and their goggles," Meyer says. Typical for ocean water, visibility was probably about 15 to 20 feet. They dove again and again, scanning the two-kilometer course. The Coast Guard showed up and asked everyone to get out of the water.
"I was like, 'You can basically go f--- yourself. I'm going to keep looking,'" Meyer says.
After two hours in the water searching, he saw some commotion on shore, people gathered, watercrafts zipping to and fro. They had found Crippen. He had drowned. The Coast Guard pulled in his body just a few hundred meters from the finish.
Meyer has struggled with the what-ifs. What if he had raced that day? If he had stayed out and fed for Fran, would he have noticed his friend go under? They always had each other's backs in the water. Hadn't Crippen even swum back against the pack to check on him that time? "In retrospect, I wish I had been out there," Meyer says.
But dwelling on that guilt wasn't constructive. He knows Crippen died largely because of unsafe conditions and inadequate safety measures at the race. That knowledge, however, comes with an anger he harbors, but one that he's learned to channel elsewhere.
"He's just brought Fran along with him," Murphy says. "Their relationship didn't end there."
About a month after the race, Meyer and his family -- his mom, dad and younger brother, Sam -- took a trip to Turks and Caicos. He hadn't talked much about what happened, how he was feeling in the wake of the tragedy. Nobody really pressed.
One evening, though, he brought out a framed photograph of Crippen to the shore to snap a picture of it against the scenic backdrop. He then settled into a beach chair, flanked by his parents, and just stared into the sunset. "It was beautiful," Shawn says. "And we weren't saying a word. We were just together."
After a few moments, though, she heard something and turned to see her son crying, sobbing in his chair. "It's another one of those moments where you just don't know what you can possibly do or say," she says.
Getting out of her seat, she walked over and crawled into her son's beach chair with him. She laid her head on his shoulder and just let him cry.
"Alex," she said finally, still searching for the words as her heart broke for him. "I don't think I've told you this, but I am just so very sorry for your loss. I'm so sorry."
And through his tears, he managed to declare: "Mom, I'm going to the Olympics. And when I stand up on that podium. ... I'm going to accept Fran's medal."
"I was speechless, I think for a lot of reasons," she says. "Just the humaneness, the generosity, the compassion of that image. ... But then there was also the fear, the worry that, Oh my god, Alex, what if you can't do that for your friend?" She pauses. "But I didn't say either one of those things. ...
"Alex is a pretty private guy with his emotions," she says. "But when he does emote, he has a beautiful heart."
In light of Crippen's death, FINA instituted an official recommended maximum temperature of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 degrees Fahrenheit), though the adherence to that guideline hasn't been consistent. At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, the water temperature at 5:30 on the morning of the 25K race was 30.5 degrees Celsius. Meyer refused to swim, and a handful of others withdrew as well. But organizers went ahead with the race. Meyer was dumbfounded, furious. "I'm just like, do you not remember what happened a year ago?" he says.
Beyond water temperature, there are plenty of other safety issues that affect open-water swimming -- from finding adequate lifeguards to ensuring water cleanliness. But in London, none of these should be a problem, certainly not temperature. The 10-year average of the Serpentine in August is a brisk 65 degrees.
In truth, the only thing that could hold Meyer back may be his own body. Last January, while riding his bike near his home in Cambridge one evening, he flipped over the handlebars when the chain of his bike popped off the sprocket. He landed on his shoulder, breaking his collarbone. The injury took him out of the water for six weeks and severely set back his training. When he dives into the water in London, it will be just his third open-water race of the year.
"At some point, I said to him, 'We're just not going to use this as an excuse,'" Murphy says. "But he was very fortunate that he qualified beforehand. Very fortunate."
No matter what happens in London, though, Meyer knows better than to stake everything on the podium.
"Obviously, a medal is a recognition of the hard work and your athletic prowess or whatever," he says. "But those things tend to lose value over time anyway. ... The most enduring memories of my swimming career aren't going to be winning medals, but everything else along the way. People like Fran, Tim, being around [Cambridge] with my teammates and all these experiences, they will stand the test of time to me. ...
"So what would [a medal] mean to me?" he says. "It would obviously mean a hell of a lot. But I'm not going to define my life by it."
Not a minute later, though, he adds a coda. "But I just feel like, it has to happen," he says through a wry smile. "It just has to happen. ... I mean, I'm not saying it's going to happen. ... But it needs to happen."
One day, Meyer says he's going to organize an open-water race in Walden Pond. He envisions the spectators lining the stone wall along the eastern shore cheering on the home stretch. The noise will be deafening. But for now, Meyer swims the water with his thoughts alone, guided by Murphy's lime green kayak. Stroke by stroke, his mind may turn -- maybe to the cute girls he can spy on shore or the rainbow trout guarding her eggs below. Every now and then, though, he thinks of Fran, of him laughing uncontrollably, bounded over on a small hotel bed clutching his stomach as his face reddens and the veins in his shaved head begin to show. There isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't think of his friend. To every race, he takes with him a picture of Crippen, standing on a podium with a medal around his neck, holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and giving a hearty thumbs up with his other.
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment," Thoreau wrote in Walden, "that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
Meyer used to imagine standing on that podium in London with Fran. Now, he imagines standing there for him.