A family beach house in Avalon, N.J., became the genesis of four great swimming careers.
“Our mom put us in water babies when we were really young,” said Virginia senior Claire Crippen. “It was just to get us comfortable in the water. Our parents wanted us to be water safe and know how to swim. My older sister was obviously the first one. She started loving the sport, so my parents put her into summer club and she continued with it and never looked back. We all kind of followed in those footsteps.”
That oldest sister, Maddy, swam at Villanova from 1998-2002, and was an Olympian at the 2000 Sydney Games. Next in line was brother Fran, who swam at Virginia from 2002-06. Claire is currently a senior at Virginia, while the youngest Crippen, Teresa, is an All-America junior swimming for defending NCAA Champion Florida.
Claire’s senior season in the pool for the Cavaliers kicked off with a family affair on Oct. 10, 2010, in Gainesville, Fla., as UVa faced Florida in a dual meet.
“Our men’s team won and the women’s team only lost by two points,” said Crippen. “Florida had won the national championship last year so we were thrilled to get our season going, and swimming against my sister for the last time in a dual meet was pretty incredible. It was an environment that I will never forget.”
Less than two weeks later, on October 23, Teresa, Claire and Maddy’s brother, Fran Crippen, died during a FINA open-water competition in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates.
“It did set both me and my sister back,” said Claire of her brother’s death, “but we both knew what we had to do and we realized that Fran would never want us to stop swimming or give up. So we just kind of kept going. We took it day-by-day and we really used each other to get through the situation. We were both going through the same things at school. We just used each other to get through it.
“Our coaches were so supportive. I know [Florida head coach Gregg Troy] had called me multiple times asking me how I was. Everyone who put their arms around me and my family to lift us up helped me and my sister finish out the year and finish it on a good note. I think that it was a rocky start to the year, but I think that for both of us it has ended really well. It has brought me and Teresa a lot closer and I think we both respect each other a lot more than we did before.”
Claire and Teresa will have one more chance to swim against each other in NCAA competition, as both are qualified for the 400 IM at this week’s Championship meet.
“I know for sure that I haven’t bounced back,” said Virginia head coach Mark Bernardino of Fran’s death. “Without Claire, I don’t know how I’d go through every day. But to have her say hello, good morning and smile and, I think everybody in this program feels the same way, it has been her smile and her infectious positive attitude that helped our whole team bounce back.
“She has swum, I think, to be the best that she can possibly be and it’s my belief that when she stands behind the blocks she swims with and for Fran along with for her team and her teammates and her family. I don’t know that you bounce back in the period of six months but she has certainly helped everybody in their recovery and in their ability to put one foot in front of the other every single day and to keep smiles on their faces and remember Fran in the most positive manner that we possibly can. I know she helps me. Claire Crippen is one of the most positive, happy, giving people that I’ve ever met in my life, and I think she continues to do that for all of us every day.”
The entire Crippen family is working to grow the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation that will continue the work Fran was doing for open-water swimming prior to his untimely death. It will focus on three of Fran’s passions, open-water safety, helping to support swimmers trying to improve in competitive open-water swimming, financially, with coaching and education, and promoting this up-and-coming sport that became an Olympic medal event in 2008.
“My parents are adamant that the name not have ‘memorial’ in it,” explained Claire. “The foundation is in a beginning process and we have a lot of support behind us and people have reached out and are really helping us get on our feet. It’s something that my family started but it’s really for all of my brother’s friends to come together and work on this foundation together and put all of our ideas together to make it last and keep Fran’s memory alive.”
Claire Crippen had not set out to follow in her brother’s footsteps at Virginia, and Fran did not push her to become a Cavalier.
“Originally,” said Crippen, “I didn’t want to come to UVa. I wanted to go to a school where it would be more laid back and just enjoy the sport. But as soon as I took my trip here I fell in love with it. I met Mark on my recruiting trip and went over all of my thoughts about coming to UVa and some of the reasons that were holding me back. Coming out of that meeting, I felt a great deal of comfort with him and the way he responded to all of my questions about following in my brother’s footsteps, being compared to him for four more years. He told me the truth and said ‘I can’t worry about my past swimmers. I don’t have time to compare you to your siblings. It doesn’t matter. You’re here because of who you are.’ That sealed the deal with me. This was a great opportunity to go to a school like this. I knew what I was getting myself into at that moment.
“I knew Fran was a big part of this program and he was a big part of my decision with the success that he reached here. But at the same time, he never tried to push me in this direction. We never talked about schools or my decisions at all.”
“Her Virginia career has just been stellar,” said Bernardino of Claire Crippen. “Any time a younger sibling follows in the footsteps of an older sibling, there will probably always be a little bit of fear, a little bit of trepidation and a little bit of worry about whether or not they’ll be judged for who they are or they’ll be cast in the shadow of the older sibling. I think in Claire’s case she was able to come to Virginia and be Claire Crippen. I don’t think anybody ever tried to compare Claire to Fran or tried to draw comparisons between the two. The similarities were there, certainly, between the two of them, far more than probably Claire realized or understood. But she came here and made her own way and made her own identity and she remained very true to the person that Claire Crippen is. That’s a very difficult thing for someone to do, but I think she did it as well as anyone could possibly ever do it.
“She has been magnificent. She’s been everything and more than I could have ever imagined she would be. And I expected a lot from her just because I knew the family so well. I truly expected a lot from Claire and she delivered 110 percent.”
Crippen’s final competitive meet for the Cavaliers is underway, and her focus for the NCAA Championships is less on herself and more on her team.
“I approach every swim meet with pretty much the same attitude,” said Crippen. “I really just want to have fun and be better than what I was at ACCs. Another huge part of this meet especially with it being NCAAs is just being the best supporter I can be. It’s so important for all of us to swim so well if we want to accomplish our goals. It’s not only being the best swimmer, it’s being the best leader that you can be for each and every person so everyone can swim to the best of their abilities. Obviously, my goals are to make it back and be top-16 and top-8 in my events but the bigger picture is that I just want to be there for my team. My last meet. It’s something I want to remember for the rest of my life.”
Prior to the start of this season, Crippen was chosen by her teammates as a team captain. The most accomplished senior class in UVa women’s swimming and diving history, Crippen and her seven classmates have never lost an ACC dual meet or a Conference Championship meet, and have propelled the ‘Hoos from a top-20 to a top-10 program. Bernardino has high hopes for Crippen’s NCAA weekend.
“I don’t know whether it’s what I expect as much as what I hope for for Claire,” said Bernardino. “I hope she swims the best time she’s ever swum in the 400 IM. Her goal and her dream is to swim faster at this meet than she has ever swum before. Her signature event is the 400 IM. I would love for Claire to be able to swim in the final eight with her sister Teresa and I would love for Claire to swim the fastest time she’s ever swum in her career in her three best events, which are the 400 IM, the 200 IM and the 200 butterfly.”
Crippen did just that in the 400 IM at the ACC Championship.
“We were trailing an excellent North Carolina team going into the 400 IM,” recalls Bernardino. “I think it was Claire’s swim and her victory in that race (that propelled UVa to the win). She set a new ACC record and obviously a new personal best but it was her ability to stand up in that race at a time when her team needed her most that paved the way for our team to turn around a disappointing Day 1. I think she shook us out of the doldrums and turned all of her teammates into believers. It was a very, very emotional win for all the right reasons for Claire but it was a hugely emotional victory and it was a very uplifting swim for our whole team that I think gave us the confidence and gave us the inspiration to come back and win that meet. There were tears in everybody’s eyes.
“She is that loved. Fran was that loved and Claire is that loved and I know the entire Crippen family is that loved by everybody here at the University of Virginia and by the vast majority of people who know the sport of swimming. There is just something very special about that family and their work ethic and their resolve and their dedication. It all comes down to the way they treat people. Everybody that is in their presence is allowed to feel good about themselves and made to feel special about themselves because of the human nature of the Crippen family. ”
Crippen’s plans after graduation do not necessarily include swimming. She will spend three weeks this summer in Vietnam, coaching and teach with the “Coach for College” program that is comprised of Atlantic Coast Conference student-athletes in all sports. She has also applied for Teach for America and eventually plans to go back to school for a teaching degree.
As Bernardino sees his time on the pool deck with Claire Crippen come to a close this weekend at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, he’s not quite sure what the 2011-12 season will be like without a Crippen on his pool deck.
“It’s going to be a very major adjustment,” said Bernardino. “There are always going to be Crippens in my heart and they are always going to be part of how the University of Virginia conducts itself as a swim team. They will always be here.”