By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Teresa Crippen never fulfilled her dream of making an Olympic team, but that never stopped her from trying.
In fact, when she took to the water, her goal was always to push herself to excellence. And even when she failed to live up to her own expectations, she always took consolation in the fact that she gave it her all.
Now, almost two years since she retired from swimming, distance and time have given her a new perspective – one she wishes she’d had while competing.
“One thing that Coach (Gregg) Troy and (Dick) Shoulberg had always tried to do was get me to enjoy the journey. I was not so good at that!” Crippen said. “I always wanted to perform my best, and when I fell even a little short, it was a disappointment.
“But now, a few years removed, those memories that were at one time disappointments have faded away. Of course, I ultimately was disappointed in myself for not making the Olympic Team, and it was a big thing to get over, but I have learned that life goes on and that swimming was a success even with that disappointing end because of all the memories and friends I have gained.”
These days, Crippen is helping create memories for children across the United States. As a project manager for KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds playgrounds via a community-build model, she travels throughout North America and works mostly with low-income, high-need areas to plan a volunteer event for 250 people to build a playground in one day.
Because she’s in and out of airports so much, she has only touched the water about 10 times since she stopped swimming two years ago. But just as she did when she decided it was time to retire, she doesn’t miss it much, if at all.
For her, swimming had given her and her family so much over the years, but she knew that the desire to dedicate herself to the sport was no longer there. And when her brother, Fran, died during an open water competition in 2010, she gained a new outlook on life and the sport.
“Fran’s death really put things into perspective for me, and I realized what was important in life,” said Crippen, who was a multiple All-American at Florida. “I was ready to be able to pick up and go anywhere and do things that I did not have time to do while training to compete at a world-class level.”
With her newfound freedom, Crippen said she now has time and opportunity to make new memories with old friends.
She recently went to a wedding for one of her closest friends from the University of Florida, Liz Kemp Melillo, and the event was filled with people from her swimming career.
“It really hit me at the wedding just how amazing the sport has been for me,” Crippen said. “I have my closest, lifelong friends because of swimming. I have been able to share swimming memories with them, but I will also be able to share post-swimming memories with them because of the bonds that swimming formed.”
But Crippen hasn’t forgotten the highlights and memories she made while competing. One that stands out in her mind was competing at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships in 2010 when she had the honor of standing next to Fran on the pool deck.
As they stood there, they cracked one-liners and shared laughs that she will forever hold close to her heart.
She also remembers fondly seeing Coach Shoulberg, her coach at Germantown Academy, after her gold medal win in the 200 backstroke at the Pan American Games in 2007.
“He had done so much for me as a person and had spent so many hours helping me be a better swimmer that it was special to be able to win the event with him in the stands,” she said.
When she’s not on the road helping build playgrounds for children, Crippen and her family run the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation – and she said they are expecting their biggest year yet in 2014.
Along with the biggest fundraiser of the year, the Broad Street Run, in Philadelphia in May – the family also has the privilege of working with Gregg Cross and the people in Fort Myers, Fla., on the Open Water Festival this coming April.
“We are extremely excited because the weekend will include the first, and hopefully annual, Crippen Cup 10K,” she said. “This is going to be a 10K race held on US soil, and the goal is for it to be the safest race for our swimmers. International swimmers are also invited, which will make for some great racing.
“The Crippen Cup is really the kick-off to a great, interactive weekend that is being planned with the help of Jolyn, Speedo, Gatorade, Vasa and others. There will be a clinic, age group races and the third annual Fran Crippen Sunset Mile on April 12. Participants have until April 1 to sign up for any of the weekend’s activities and can learn more at www.openwaterfestival.org.”
Crippen is planning to return to school in a year or two to get her master’s degree in construction management. After that, she intends to continue to work for the foundation and see where her road takes her.
Regardless of what happens, she said she knows she will also have her strong family nucleus to rely upon, celebrate with and always remember their brother and son. It’s what guided her and her siblings to become one of the most successful swim families in the history of the sport.
“I think our work ethic is the foundation for my family’s success (in swimming), and that was instilled in us by our parents and then re-instilled by Shoulberg,” said Crippen, who enjoys being close to family – especially nephew Jack – living in Washington, D.C. “When we were younger and doing a lot of sports, my parents always told us how important it was to be accountable and make the practices we committed to. If we could not make the practices, then it was not fair to the coaches or our team.
“Instilling this work ethic and accountability in all of us from the start carried over into our careers. All four of us hold, and held, ourselves to a high standard and wanted to be accountable to ourselves, but mostly our team and coaches. We were definitely not the most naturally talented swimmers, but we all had a work ethic that allowed us to compete at a high level.”