Swimming world championships: Heat plays havoc with open-water racers
JINSHAN CITY, China (AP) – When Alex Meyer pulled out before the start of the 25-kilometer race at the world championships Saturday, the U.S. swimmer did so with good reason: Teammate Fran Crippen died in a race in similarly warm water last year.
As the open water race began and one swimmer after another quit, Meyer questioned why swimming’s governing body was risking a repeat of last year’s tragedy.
“It’s like, did you not learn your lesson? Do you not remember what happened last time?” he said.
The men’s and women’s races were moved up to a 6 a.m. start in an attempt to stage them in cooler conditions. But the water was already 87 degrees, just under the suggested “unsafe” point of 88.
As the morning wore on, the water temperature reached 88 and the sun began beating down on the course. The air temperature was 90 degrees with 68 percent humidity by the time the race finished.
By that point, 10 of the 29 men who started the race had quit, as had four of the 21 female starters.
Defending men’s champion Valerio Cleri of Italy left the water just after four hours, saying it was “too hot and too dangerous” to continue.
“There’s not enough attention on the athletes,” Cleri said. “There should not have been a race here. The jury was irresponsible.”
Teammate Edoardo Stochino stopped about 50 minutes later and was taken away on a stretcher as officials poured cold water over his chest. He was checked, returning to the venue a short time later.
Crippen, a six-time U.S. national champion, died in October near the end of a 10K World Cup event in the United Arab Emirates. No one noticed him slip beneath the surface, and his body was not found until two hours after the race.
Following the race, FINA issued a new recommendation that races should not be held when water temperature exceeds 88 degrees. It was 84 at the start of the October race.
“What’s the point in making rules and recommendations if you’re just going to blow them off at events like this?” Meyer said during the race in Shanghai.
Dennis Miller, FINA’s liaison official for open water swimming, defended the decision not to halt the race. He said the lead packs of men and women swimmers looked strong and necessary precautions were being taken, such as having two doctors and multiple boats on the course. He called 88 degrees a “guideline … not a rule.”
“We have to take into account how the swimmers are actually looking in the water, how the coaches are feeding the swimmers,” he said. “It is really the coach’s responsibility, their duty to care for their athletes.”
Miller responded to criticism that the race was too dangerous by suggesting that some of the competitors should have been better prepared for the conditions.
“There were obviously a group of athletes who were better prepared than others,” he said. “The majority of the swimmers finished.”
FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said after the race that the organization is working with a New Zealand university to establish a better temperature limit, and the International Olympic Committee is sharing the cost for the research.
“The target is to be ready by the end of this year and it will be included in the rules for 2012 and the Olympics,” he said.
Saturday’s race was won by Peter Stoychev of Bulgaria, who completed the course in 5 hours, 10 minutes, 39.8 seconds. He said he felt fine during the race, but when the temperature hit 88, he added: “No need to discuss. It’s time to end.”
The women’s champion was Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil, who held off Angela Maurer of Germany by a body length in a sprint to the finish. Cunha finished in 5:29.22.9.
U.S. open water coach Jack Roach said he advised his swimmers before the race not to compete because of the water temperature.
Haley Anderson joined Meyer on the sidelines, but Claire Thompson decided to compete in the women’s race because it was her first race internationally and she wanted to swim. But American officials pulled her from the race 4 1/2 hours in when they checked the water and found it to be 90.7.
“There was no point in taking a chance,” Roach said, adding that Thompson wanted to continue swimming. “She felt fine. She didn’t want to get out.”
Thomas Lurz, the men’s 10K champion in Shanghai, also decided not to start, as did defending women’s champion Linsy Heister of the Netherlands.
“We knew before that it would be really hot here,” he said.
He said FINA should have found an alternate site for the open-water portion of the worlds. Even 86 degrees, he stressed, is “really just too hot.”