x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Swim chief defends safety measures

The head of the UAE Swim Federation denies safety was overlooked at the Open Water World Cup race on Saturday during which a swimmer died.

Crippen had expressed concerns to USA Swimming earlier this month over the level of assistance available during races.
Crippen had expressed concerns to USA Swimming earlier this month over the level of assistance available during races.

FUJAIRAH // The head of the UAE Swim Federation has denied safety was overlooked at the Open Water World Cup race on Saturday during which a swimmer died.

Fran Crippen, 26, died about 400 metres from the finish of the 10km race. Ayman Saad said: "Last year we organised [the race] in the same conditions - and maybe it was worse. It was October 9 and hotter than now. If you go to Facebook you can see how happy they were to swim in the Emirates."

Mr Saad said that nobody had complained about the temperature before the race, but he did call for Fina, the sport's world governing body, to set a maximum of 30°C for races.

However, Christine Jennings, 23, one of three swimmers who were taken to hospital after the race, told the Washington Post that she vomited several times in the water because of the heat.

She said she had to give up racing, and swim on her back with an arm in the air to ask for help. She complained that the response had been slow, saying she eventually struggled to shore with the help of a friend.

Mr Saad refuted those claims and said there had been adequate help at hand - had Jennings asked for it.

"Why didn't she stop for her coach? Why she didn't stop for the judge?" he asked. "Every 200 or 300 metres maximum there is someone there. She didn't say anything, she didn't complain."

The race met regulations set by Fina, but Jennings said there were fewer patrol boats than usual.

"It was a disaster," Jennings said. "I'm floating on my back for several minutes, thinking 'Why isn't anybody checking on me?'"

Jennings and fellow American Eva Fabian, 17, were treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion. Fujairah Police interviewed them but Jennings said she was not interviewed by swimming officials.

Mr Saad said the news story was the first he had heard that Jennings had signalled for assistance.

"Nobody said this to us," he said. "We had everything. Nobody complained. We had a technical committee meeting with all the swimmers and coaches the day before and we answered all the questions before the race.

"Nobody asked about the temperature. They swam one day before and nobody said anything."

The water temperature at the end of the race was 31°C, according to race officials, but Jennings and Germany's Thomas Lurz, the nine-times open water champion who won the event, claimed the water was much hotter, a claim Mr Saad expressed disbelief at.

As well as setting a maximum water temperature, Mr Saad also asked for the number of participants to be cut.

As the sport's popularity has risen with its introduction as an Olympic sport in 2008, officials have been unable to provide adequate supervision for the growing number of swimmers, he said.

About 20 to 30 swimmers competed when the UAE began hosting open-water Fina events in 2002. There were more than 80 in the water on Saturday.

"If we want our sport to grow we need to do more to make it safe for the people," said Mr Saad.

"When we have 82 swimmers in the water, we cannot put 82 lifeguards. If you have 30 swimmers you can have more security and more focus on the swimmers."

Judges and coaches at five stations, jetskis and boats monitored swimmers at the two-kilometre circuit.

"All associations have to send a professional coach, not a family coach," said Mr Saad. "For every two swimmers there should be at least one person to feed the swimmer and look for them."

Crippen had expressed similar concerns to the executive director of USA Swimming earlier this month, reported the Washington Post.

"Once at the events, our swimmers are typically on their own to find assistance," he wrote.

"An open water swimmer needs a coach to represent them at the pre-race meetings, coach them during practice, and, most importantly, feed them during the event."

USA Swimming said it would conduct an independent investigation of the race.

The UAE death certificate cited heat exhaustion and drowning as the cause of death, according to the newspaper.

"I'm distraught over the loss of my son, but this can't be a meaningless situation," Crippen's father Pete told USA Today. "Fina needs to understand what happened and not brush this off as some freak incident, which it wasn't," said Jennings.

"They need to make changes. They signed off on this race ... there are a lot of questions I want to ask."

 

azacharias@thenational.ae