At the top of the creaking staircase in the century-old home on Eighth Avenue in Conshohocken, the front bedroom - Fran Crippen's room - is quiet.
Spread across it are reminders, trappings of what was. A children's book about Geronimo. A little boy's cowboy boots. Collegiate swimming championship rings. Three USA Swimming "Open Water Swimmer of the Year" plaques.
In open-water swimming, this second Friday of these Olympic Games was going to be Fran Crippen's day. He was determined to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. London was the moment he had been working toward his entire life.
But back in that front bedroom, the item that really gets the attention of Pat Crippen - his mother - is the big bed in the middle of the room. She loves this story. When her son, Fran, decided to move back here after a few years of training in Mission Viejo, Calif., she told him he wouldn't be able to maneuver his king-size bed up those stairs. But Fran and the movers stubbornly got it done. She hoped that he at least tipped them well.
"A bed fit for a king, Mom," Fran often would say. "Fit for a king."
Mother and son had gotten to that place where, most of the time, they felt more like close friends. Fran, 26, liked to call his parents "my roommates," and when he left for a 10-kilometer open-water swimming race in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, in October 2010, he surely would be back soon for more fun with his family.
Over the years, he had hinted to his parents that his sport had some issues. Sometimes, they raced in water temperatures that could be too warm under certain circumstances. Sometimes, there wasn't enough supervision of stragglers.
Fran Crippen wasn't one to stay silent when there was something to be said, so one month before the race, he wrote a letter to USA Swimming, putting words to his concerns.
During his four-year open-water swimming career, he had never been pulled out of the water because of exhaustion or dehydration, but many others had. Crippen felt as if he could push through anything, and he'd mostly proven that.
But on Oct. 23, 2010, after that race in Fujairah, his teammate, Alex Meyer, noticed that Crippen hadn't come in with the rest of the swimmers. A rescue team was sent to look for him. Two hours later, Crippen was removed from the water, his body limp.
"Who loses their life at a swim meet?" Pat Crippen said.
Her boy still lives in the mementos in this room. Pat; her husband, Pete; and their three daughters aren't ready to clear it out just yet.
On the wall, to the left of that king-size bed, hangs a poster of famed distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Fran had been captivated by Pre's story, how an Olympian and icon in his sport had died too young with so much promise.
Like Pre, Fran Crippen was just beginning to find his voice. And certainly, in the controversial world of open-water swimming, there would have been much to talk about. The question is, would anyone have listened?
The Crippen children grew up in the water. Pete and Pat had a summer home on the Jersey Shore, where Pete had once been a lifeguard. The children had to be water safe, so they put each of them into a class at the YMCA before their first birthdays.
"They always loved the water," Pat Crippen said. "There are children who don't love it and are afraid of it, but our kids were never happier than being in the water, around the water, playing in the water."
It was easy to see where this was going. They all swam for their high school and club team at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, and they'd all swim in college. First there was Maddy, who went to Villanova University and competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the 400-meter individual medley. Then there was Fran, who attended the University of Virginia and narrowly missed the Olympics a few times over the years. Claire followed her brother to Virginia, and the youngest, Teresa, went to the University of Florida.
In 2006, Fran and Teresa had qualified for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Victoria, British Columbia. At this event, all of the swimmers were offered a chance to swim the open-water event.
Open water, which takes place not in a pool but in outdoor bodies of water, was swimming for tough people, the sport in its purest form. Fran Crippen had never competed in an open-water race, but given his extreme training regimen, he had assumed he could handle it. Plus, there was prize money for the top finishers, and as a young athlete in an Olympic sport, he needed as much financial help as possible. So he signed up.
He finished second, winning $10,000.
"He was really angry he got second," Teresa said. "I was like, 'Do you think you're going to do one of those again?' He was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to do a bunch more.' "
It made sense to Fran Crippen. Every swimmer's goal is to be an Olympian, and his best event, the 800 meters, was not an Olympic event. Plus, the intricacies, such as turns and kicking, were never really his thing anyway. Crippen decided he was going to plunge into open water full bore.
Pat and Pete Crippen didn't do much research on their son's new event. Why would they? He would be in the water, just as he always had been.
"Never in a million years was there a concern that they would go to a meet and it would not be safe," Pat Crippen said.
Fran's physical and mental makeup appeared meant for the rigors of open water. As time went by, he began to enjoy seeing what he could put his body through and still come out of it.
"Fran was learning a mind-over-matter thing," his mother said.
The way open-water swimming is set up by the Federation Internationale de Natation, the international governing body of swimming known as FINA, its top athletes are required to swim all of the races included in each year's FINA series to have a chance at the prize money at the end.
Add in the fact that the athletes are competitors, and they are not likely to pull themselves out of an event, no matter the circumstances.
The races are held all over the world on dates set months in advance, so there is no way to control what the water temperature will be on the day of the race. FINA rules say that races can take place at temperatures as high as 31 degrees Celsius, or 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Many swimmers wish that upper limit was more like 82.4 degrees.
Still, on race day, when all of the swimmers are in the same location, and sponsorship money already has been invested, the event is unlikely to be canceled.
That October day in Fujairah, the water was said to be approaching 90 degrees. The race was the last of the 2010 FINA series, and Crippen would have to finish it to get that year's prize. So he swam.
At the 8-kilometer mark, four-fifths of the way, Crippen stopped at his final feeding station and complained that he was feeling thirsty. He kept swimming.
Somewhere between there and the finish line, Crippen disappeared, and nobody noticed when he went under. Meyer wasn't swimming that day because he'd had an appendectomy the week before, but he was there at the finish line to support his American teammate. When he first asked where Crippen was, a race official said that he must have already gone back to the hotel. Meyer feared that wasn't true.
"It was way too hot," Meyer said. "And there weren't enough lifeguards. It was like 90 degrees. It should not have been run."
Back in Conshohocken, the Crippens assumed that the race had gone fine, and that Fran was about to head to Italy for a vacation with his girlfriend, Caitlin Regan. But they soon would find out that their son was not coming home.
"When we learned of Fran's death, we felt certain it was a heart attack," Pete Crippen said. "But as far as they could tell, the heart was OK. The autopsy read that he died of exhaustion and drowned.
"I can accept the fact that he might die of heatstroke, or a heart attack, but I can't accept the fact that nobody was there, and he was down two hours before anybody noticed."
At Fran's funeral, his friends from Philadelphia and Virginia and the swimming community gathered with his heartbroken family. All were trying to come to grips with the same thing: Fran Crippen, who was practically born in the water and lived there blissfully for 26 years, had to die there, too.
Moving on slowly
Alex Meyer does not want to be next. He is in London for the Olympics, knowing that it could have been Fran Crippen in his place, and he will swim the open-water event Friday in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake with his fallen friend in the back of his mind.
Meyer, a native of Ithaca, N.Y., who graduated from Harvard, is 24. Crippen, who have been 28, was like a big brother to him.
"He's been an inspiration to me in life and death, and I think about him all the time," Meyer said. "Even before his death, he was a big advocate of safety in open water, and that's something I never really thought about until the tragedy. Honestly, it's not anything that an athlete should have to think about."
Meyer has taken up the vocal role that Crippen was ready to fill. After the 2011 world championship 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) race in Shanghai was held in conditions similar to those Crippen died in, Meyer spoke out against what he believed was FINA's continued negligence of swimmer safety.
"Fran couldn't finish a 10K," Meyer said. "Now they're letting people do a 25K? I could go on and on talking about all the things that were appalling and ridiculous. It's like, do you not remember what happened?"
So far, the Crippens and Meyer have had to accept small victories. The day after Fran died, the family started the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation. The foundation's first goal is to promote safety in open-water swimming, and, in April of the last two years, they have supported the Crippen Sunset Mile swim at the Open Water Festival in Miromar Lakes, Fla.
The foundation's second goal is to support two swimmers with Olympic ambitions with $12,000-per-year grants. Matt McLean was one of the recipients, and he won a gold medal as a part of the 4x200 freestyle relay team in the London Games.
But, at the international level, it doesn't appear to the Crippen family that Fran's death has made much of an impact.
FINA appointed an independent task force to investigate Crippen's death. Its numerous recommendations included setting a maximum temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 Farenheit) and a minimum temperature of 18 Celcius (64.4 Farenheit), as well as considering a safe ratio of air and water temperatures. It also recommended more safety, medical, and tracking measures for the swimmers.
"We don't understand why these rules haven't been changed yet," Teresa Crippen said. "They've tried to make steps in the right direction, but they're baby steps. We want them to be . . ."
"Giant steps," Pat said.
The Crippens have coped with their loss like any strong family would, holding each other close. Maddy is about to have her first child, bringing new life into the void. Teresa and Claire, a part of the boomerang generation, have moved home after finishing school, too.
Pat has started doing yoga, and Pete has been golfing nearly every day. He hardly even enjoys the sport, but it's something to do.
"My game sucks," Pete said. "It gets worse, then it gets a little better, and it gets worse again. I really don't care how good I get."
Pete Crippen has not watched or attended an open-water swimming event since Fran's death. He simply cannot do it.
Pat and Teresa have been to the Crippen Mile event each year, only to honor Fran's memory and the mission of the foundation.
From their living room, they will watch Alex Meyer and the other competitors race Friday and, at the end, they will start counting.
Sure, the Crippens would love to see Meyer swim away with a medal. But they mostly will be concerned with one simple thing: That the 25 swimmers who get into the water are able to get out of it.