Fran Crippen, a swimming star at Germantown Academy who returned to world-class competition last year to chase his dream of being an Olympian, died during an open-water race in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday.
Crippen, 26, reportedly was struggling late in the 10-kilometer race, held in 100-degree weather, and told a team coach he wasn't feeling well. When he failed to finish, other competitors dove back in to look for him, along with divers. His body was found about two hours later.
A gregarious, 6-foot, 2-inch member of a dynastic swimming family from Conshohocken, Crippen was competing in his last race of the season before a 10-day vacation in Italy. A rabid Philadelphia sports fan, he constantly checked for updates on the Phillies' playoff run.
His mother, Patricia, said she dropped him off at Philadelphia International airport on Tuesday with an admonishment to avoid tourist spots in Europe after his meet, because of the terrorism alerts.
"He was the love of our lives," she said. "He was just so full of life and enjoyed life so much."
"His last email to me [before Thursday's win] was, 'How come the Phillies keep losing, what the heck," she said.
His coach at Germantown, Richard Shoulberg, went to the family home in Conshohocken on Saturday morning to break the news.
"My sixth sense tells me that he probably didn't realize he was in trouble, and probably just pushed harder," Shoulberg said in an interview.
"He would swim through pain every day in training," he said. "He just wanted to be an Olympian."
Crippen's three sisters are also top competitive swimmers. His older sister, Maddy, swam for Villanova and competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Claire Crippen was an All-American at the University of Virginia, where her brother also swam, and Teresa Crippen swims at the University of Florida and is a member of the U.S. national team.
"He was our hero," said Maddy Crippen.
Fran Crippen started competitive swimming when he was 6, and played all sports before focusing on swimming in high school. Shoulberg said Crippen loved spending time with young swimmers - even ones just learning to swim.
"The irony is he was very very concerned about the safety of kids in pools," he said. "He was caring and loving and loved the sport, loved the pool.
"Lightning struck at the wrong time that's all," Shoulberg said.
After a disappointing performance in the 2008 Olympic trials, Shoulberg said, Crippen decided to quit competitive swimming, and returned to Germantown as a volunteer coach, refusing offers of a salary.
But he soon caught the bug again, and resumed training with Shoulberg. He won a bronze medal at the 2009 world championships and was training hard for his goal of swimming in the 2012 Olympics - swimming about 45 miles a week, as well as running.
On Saturday, Crippen was competing in the FINA Open Water 10-kilometer World Cup in Fujairah, south of Dubai.
After eight kilometers, Crippen supposedly told a team coach that he wasn't feeling well, according to FINA President Julio Maglione of Uruguay, who heard the news at an Olympic meeting in Acapulco. Another swimmer alerted race officials that Crippen was struggling, but he had apparently already slipped under water by the time officials started looking.
Maglione said it was the first death in any FINA event, and said the organization has opened an investigation.
Open-water events typically are monitored by spotters on jetskis and boats. Maglione said the race organizers did nothing wrong.
"All was under strict rules that exist in our competition. All was absolutely correct," he said. "It was an accident, a terrible accident."
In addition to Crippen, Maglione said three other swimmers - two U.S. women and one Brazilian - were taken to a hospital, apparently suffering from heat-related problems.
USA Swimming said coaches, athletes, members and employees were "deeply saddened" by Crippen's death.
"Fran was a champion swimmer but more importantly, a tremendous person, and he will be remembered for so many extraordinary qualities," the organization said in a statement. "We will continue to work with FINA, the meet host and others to determine how this tragedy occurred."