Nov. 5, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly two weeks have passed since the stunning news reached Mark Bernardino, flooring him during a practice at the Aquatic & Fitness Center. The architect of UVa’s powerful swimming programs still struggles to accept that the unthinkable has become reality.

Fran Crippen is gone.

“If there was any one person that you would say was made of steel, it was Fran,” said Bernardino, who has coached the men’s and women’s teams at his alma mater since 1978. “He was the ultimate competitor, the ultimate warrior, the one that could never be struck down.”

Crippen, 26, died on Oct. 23 while competing at the 10K World Cup open-water race near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Funeral services were held Oct. 30 at Saint Matthew Roman Catholic Parish in his hometown of Conshohocken, Pa., near Philadelphia.

Bernardino, who was exceptionally close to Crippen, was asked to give the eulogy, and it can be read below. The ACC swimmer of the year in 2003 and ’04, Crippen was an 11-time All-American for Virginia, and after graduating he remained a fixture in Bernardino’s program.

“He came back all the time,” Bernardino said. “Yes, because he supported his sister and because he loved his sister, and he was that kind of a big brother. But he loved UVa, and he loved UVa swimming. He enjoyed coming here, being here, being part of this program, passing on stories and telling the current team and those athletes about what it took to be great and what he expected of them. He was still heavily emotionally invested in the success of his team and his program.”

Crippen’s sister Claire is a fourth-year swimmer at UVa, the second-youngest member of one of the sport’s storied families. Another sister, Maddy, starred at Villanova and swam for the United States at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The youngest sibling, Teresa, is an All-American at Florida.

“I wish that if there’s any gift the Crippen parents, Pat and Pete, could give the world, it’s their formula for raising hard-working, dedicated, positive, happy children,” Bernardino said. “There’s never a second that I have coached either Fran or Claire when I haven’t seen pure joy in their face. For every single endeavor they undertake, they do it with just a positive attitude and pure joy in their hearts.”

Claire, who had been with her family, returned to UVa this week. The Virginia women have not competed since Fran Crippen passed away. The men defeated Navy on Oct. 29 in an dual meet in Charlottesville.

“It was very emotional,” Bernardino said. “We asked the team first if they wanted to compete, and they unanimously said yes. We want to compete in Fran’s honor, and I think they knew that’s how Fran would want it. I thought we swam lights-out. I thought we had kids, even freshman athletes on this team who maybe had only met Fran once or twice, who performed spectacularly.

“Our upper class was spectacular. The Naval Academy had a marvelous meet, too. They swam so well, and I think they swam well in Fran’s honor. They understood what the meet meant emotionally, I think, and I thought they brought a lot of their own emotion and a lot of their own energy and, obviously, an incredibly classy display of sportsmanship and respect for Fran.”

Crippen’s death shocked UVa’s swimmers, Bernardino said, “but I am supremely impressed with how strong they have been as young men and young women, how they have supported each other, how they have supported Claire, how they have supported the coaches.

“I know they’re grieving. I know they’re going to grieve for a while. But I am supremely impressed with their ability to try to stay focused on the task at hand and to be good students and to be good athletes, and in some way I see them actually having greater focus, a greater sense of purpose and even a little bit stronger work ethic, each and every day, as they’ve gone through this. Because I think they want to carry on what Fran started, especially with respect to every day giving it everything they have, and every day being the best they can possibly be in their swimming endeavors.

“He was the supreme warrior every day. Nobody could do more. Which is probably why what’s happened is such a shock, because never in the history of this school have we had an athlete who could go so long, so hard, so consistently and never be anything but positive and encouraging and happy.”

Bernardino’s teams attended the funeral in Conshohocken. So did hundreds of former UVa swimmers and countless other people whose lives Crippen, a graduate of Germantown Academy, had touched.

“It was beyond belief,” Bernardino said. “It was jam-packed to the rafters, and the best part about it was people were there out of love and respect for Fran and love and respect for his mom and dad and his sisters.”

Bernardino, too, was raised near Philly, and that only strengthened the bond between swimmer and coach.

“We had the growing-up-in-the-Philadelphia-area connection,” Bernardino said. “We had our love of everything Philadelphia. His mom grew up in the same hometown that I grew up in, oddly enough. Drexel Hill. Which I didn’t know right away. But he just had a wonderful connection. I had had the opportunity to coach him as a member of the United States national junior team in Barcelona, Spain, [when Crippen was in high school]. We hit it off there and had a lot of fun. There was nothing about the recruiting process with Fran that wasn’t incredibly positive from my perspective.”

The swimming community, Bernardino said, is extremely close-knit, and connections abound. So the news that Crippen had died “rocked the swimming world,” Bernadino said.

“It’s funny, because Fran was kind of an icon in a way. Nobody knew him as Fran Crippen. He was Fran. Like Pelé was Pelé, he was Fran. If you said the name Fran in swimming circles, there was only one Fran.”

HERE IS THE TEXT of the eulogy that UVa swimming coach Mark Bernardino gave in Conshohocken, Pa., at the funeral of Fran Crippen:

Pat, Pete, Maddy, Claire & Teresa

Members of the Crippen & Grandizio Family, Caitlin and Sean,

Surrounding you is a sea of humanity lining every inch of this church and beyond, embracing you in their strong arms, pouring forth love to you and to Fran.

The Virginia Swimming Family, The Germantown Academy Swimming Family, The Mission Viejo Family, The United States Swimming Family and the World Swimming Family are all here in this place of worship to lift you up, to love you and to share your sorrow and loss.

We are also here to celebrate the life of the one and only FRAN CRIPPEN, your beloved son and brother, our beloved son and brother. Fran only had one speed, all out, full go!! NO REAR VIEW MIRROR. Fran had the perfect perspective on life — BE POSITIVE, BE HAPPY, GIVE ALL YOU HAVE EVERYDAY TO BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE. He embraced hard work and believed hard work, a positive attitude, love and respect for his sport would ultimately bring him success. He was absolutely correct!!

I met Fran in 2000 when he was selected as a member of the USA National Junior team that competed in Barcelona, Spain. Fran was the youngest member of that team, but never saw his age as an obstacle. He easily endeared himself to his older teammates and his coaches, and this ability to befriend everyone regardless of age was one of Fran’s greatest assets. One evening shortly after our arrival in Spain, Fran asked me how I spent my afternoons. I told him I usually went for runs that lasted 25-30 minutes as that allowed me to see some of the city. I told him on one of my runs I discovered a great cathedral, Gaudi’s “FAMILIA SAGRADA,” and that I planned on visiting it the next afternoon.

Fran, of course, invited himself along, telling me he was sure I needed company and an interpreter. The next day Fran showed up with two swimmers in tow, Bo Greenwood, for company, and Ian Prichard to serve as interpreter. The three of us spent the next two afternoons exploring and climbing all over the cathedral with Fran, ever the adventurer, calling to us to follow him up steep “Secret Staircases” where we found incredible views of both the cathedral and Barcelona. After our second day in the cathedral as we were returning to the hotel Fran gave me that famous smile, and with laughter alive in his eyes, told me that he wasn’t worried about getting sent home for breaking code and leaving the hotel, he already had his perfect excuse (he really meant scapegoat) — ME!! I knew I really liked him. He was a tough, conniving, clever, street-wise kid from right here in Conshohocken. On Sunday in Barcelona, he accompanied me to mass with Bo and Ian to make sure, as Fran said, “You are granted forgiveness for contributing to the delinquency of minors.”

I would wait another two years before coaching Fran again but in the meantime, the great Coach Dick Shoulberg, who Fran loved with all his heart, continued to develop, mold and mature Fran into a great Champion and leader. Dick taught Fran how to work hard and how to use training and competitive toughness to his advantage.

Fran was a star on the rise when he arrived at Virginia and his accomplishments continued to elevate and inspire every teammate and coach in his presence. For the next four years and beyond, Coach Bill Smyth, a product and disciple of both the G.A. and UVA programs, was instrumental in assisting Fran in continuing his progress up the world rankings.

Fran loved to race and compete: meets, practice, test sets; it didn’t matter, once the pool door opened it was “Go Time.” RELENTLESS describes Fran’s approach to excellence. There was no challenge Fran would not engage and master. He was a leader of men from the very beginning of his college career.

I will share two stories with you that speak to Fran Crippen, the man and human being extraordinaire.

Fran knew I had two younger sons and was quick to remind me he had three sisters who he loved dearly, but no brothers. He asked me if I would mind if he hung out with my sons, aged 6 and 9 at the time, and be their big brother. I told him, “Sure, you are welcome at our house anytime you want to come over.” Ever the “SHY-GUY,” Fran came over a lot. He didn’t know how to knock on the door or ring a doorbell. The door would just fly open and Fran would bellow, “YO!!! Anybody home?? What’s up everybody!!”

Fran simply knew how to light up every environment he entered. He would routinely beat up his “Little Brothers” in every game they played reminding them that “Big brothers never let little brothers win.” He went to many of their games, taught them how to swear, broke two backboards in our backyard and made two young boys feel as if they were king of the world. We have a photo in our house of Fran, Kevin, Michael and me. Once Kevin’s best friend asked Kevin if he had another bigger, big brother. Kevin told him, “Kind of. That’s Fran, the greatest swimmer in the world. He has three sisters and he really loves them, but now he has two brothers too, and we really LOVE him, he’s really cool.” Fran has stayed in regular touch with my boys, always encouraging each of them to be the best person, student and athlete they could be. Fran, your initials will be on their shoes, wristbands, arm pads and bodies in every game they ever play, and they will play for you, Fran.

My other story involves our team’s endeavor to win a 4th straight conference championship during Fran’s career. It was Fran’s senior year, 4th year as we call it at Virginia. We were good, but vulnerable. We were a very young and inexperienced team and we were up against a very good and talented Florida State team. All year we knew only a perfect team performance would carry us to victory. I am a “Team First” coach, Fran was a “Team First” captain. All year he preached to his teammates that “NO WAY” was he going to go out anyway other than as a 4 time Team Champion. We went into the final evening trailing that excellent Florida State team. We have a tradition, since 1987, of placing a “V” over our hearts before every competition, that night was no different. Never in my 25-plus years of coaching had I ever placed anyone or anything above team — until that night. I exhorted the team to win this title for Fran, no matter what it took, and anything less than perfection that night would not be good enough. I told them for the first time in school history the “V” would take on a new look, we would add the initials “FC” under the point of the “V” in honor of Virginia’s greatest captain ever, FRAN CRIPPEN. We won the title that night and never has the “V” been tampered with again until yesterday and today when every man on our current team and many of the alumni wear the “V” and “FC” over their hearts.

There are 3 coaches here on whose behalf I speak: Dick Shoulberg, Bill Rose and Jack Roach. Gentlemen, Fran loved and respected each of you tremendously.

There are countless family members and Caitlin who Fran loved. Most importantly there is Pat, Pete, Maddy, Claire and Teresa. You are the core of his exceptional existence, the greatest loves of his life, the strength, the foundation, the pillars upon which he learned to become the man he is. That man is strong, intelligent, trustworthy, honest, vibrant, endearing, loyal, hard-working, determined, dedicated, majestic, competitive, spirited, intrepid, tough, humble, caring, persistent, gentle, giving, kind, PASSIONATE, and most important LOVING.

The world sees all of this in Fran as does the Father above which is why Fran is in a GLORIOUS place, continuing to live a Glorious life. Coach Pete Carroll talks of possessing an inner spirit so bright and so strong that no one or nothing is good enough to put it out. He must have known Fran, for this perfectly describes FRAN CRIPPEN. Fran has left an indelible mark on the lives of all who knew and loved him; he brightened the world with a heart as big as the world. He has been a beacon of human and athletic greatness in our midst. Thank you Crippen family for sharing Fran with all of us, we will keep him alive forever!

In 2005, Luke Anderson, one of Fran’s teammates at Virginia and on the USA team, penned a poem that we traditionally pass on to our seniors upon graduation. A small part of the poem is included in this tribute to his dear friend:











Coach Mark Bernardino

October 30, 2010

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