By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
After good friend and teammate Fran Crippen died because of unsafe conditions during an open water competition almost three years ago, Alex Meyer really started paying attention.
Whenever he is scheduled to compete in a FINA-governed open water competition – whether it’s a small meet, the World Championships or even the Olympics – he examines the course and conditions with a keen eye, not wanting to take unnecessary chances.
Ever since the day his good friend died, Meyer has been on a personal crusade to convince FINA to take additional precautions and make sure what happened to Fran doesn’t happen again.
He even refused to compete in the 25K at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai when water temperatures were too hot – protesting conditions and losing the opportunity to defend his World title.
It was a position important enough, and one he felt strongly enough about, to take a stand no matter the consequences.
“The water was way too hot...again,” said Meyer, referring to water conditions that contributed to Crippen’s death in October 2010. “They (FINA) had the temporary rule (which will more than likely be made official this summer at the FINA congress in Barcelona) of a 31 Celsius maximum water temp. In the technical meeting the day before the 25k, FINA said that if the water reached 31C, they would stop the race. The water was 30.5C at 5:30am before the sun even came up.”
With the race – that lasts between 5 and 6 hours – starting less than two hours later, Meyer knew the water temp would rise by more than 0.5C over that time with the sun beating down in the middle of summer.
“Every lap, the lead boat would write the temperature on a small marker board and show it to the swimmers,” Meyer said. “They faced it away from us on shore, of course. At one point, the entire field was convinced that the race was going to be stopped because it was so hot, so I think on lap 7 of 10, they all started racing toward the finish line.”
Meyer said an official's boat cut them off, directed them back to the course and told them to keep swimming.
“I was really angry, so I marched on down to the start/finish dock where all the FINA people were, and none of them had anything to say when I insisted that this was unsafe,” Meyer said. “These were the same conditions that Fran died in less than a year before, and they're putting athletes back into a race like this, with even higher stakes (World Champs vs. World Cup), and this time for a 25K?
“The FINA medical delegate at Worlds was the same one FINA sent to the World Cup in Fujairah, United Emirates, where Fran died. Even he was speechless (that the race was allowed to continue).”
The events that day proved something to Meyer and the rest of the open water field: each swimmer’s safety is ultimately in their own hands, and it’s something he takes very seriously with each race.
“One member of the media had to jump in the water and save a woman in the 25k who had passed out and was sinking,” Meyer said. “That whole day was unbelievable, and the constant denial that this ever went on and the refusal by FINA to admit that they could do better and actually change rules is astounding. It's deeply disturbing.”
While not Shanghai, Meyer will return to the World Championships this summer in Barcelona, Spain, where he intends to compete in the 10K and 25K – if conditions are right. He qualified for the U.S. Open Water World team last month when he won the 10K at the U.S. Open Water National Championships.
After a personally disappointing 10K last summer in London, where he finished 10th after missing two months of training and preparation prior to the Games due to a shoulder injury, Meyer is particularly motivated to prove he’s back at full strength and ready to compete.
“Tenth (at the Olympics) definitely was not the result I was looking for,” said Meyer, the 2010 World Champ in the 25K. “I made several mistakes on race day. I couldn't eat anything in the morning before the race because I was so nervous, so by the time I hit the water, I was starving. This directly affected my race. I added to the stress by deciding literally 10 minutes before the race what suit I was going to wear, and naturally, as soon as I hit the water my first thought was ‘I'm wearing the wrong suit!’
“So, basically because of the shoulder injury – fracturing my collarbone, having surgery and missing two months of training – I was unprepared. Tim Murphy, (head coach at Harvard), did a great job getting me back into the best shape possible for the Games, but with the amount of time off to rehab, the injury was just too close for me to be in peak condition. It was a huge learning experience for me. Who knows – screwing up at the Olympics could be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
With less than a month separating him from Worlds, Meyer said he will continue to train at his home base at Harvard University (his alma mater), watch the upcoming Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships (World Championship Trials), cheer on his teammates and friends and prepare as well as possible before leaving for Barcelona.
“I am really looking forward to the chance to redeem myself from last summer and defend my 25k title from 2010,” Meyer said. “I’m also excited about having a team of 8 (open water) swimmers!”
With the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics still a few years away, Meyer said he will take things year by year with the goal of competing there. Beyond that, he’s unsure but believes that could be his swimming swan song.
“I would like to swim in Rio, but probably not beyond 2016, though I would like to stay involved in the sport in some way,” Meyer said. “I think I am still getting better and I still love it. When that statement is no longer true, I will retire.”