By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are hundreds of Fran Crippen stories, and Claire Crippen has heard dozens since losing her brother in October. Everyone in the swimming world, it seems, liked and respected the charismatic young man known simply as “Fran.”
“It’s crazy,” Claire said recently at UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center. “I don’t know how he did it, honestly. When I was at home the whole two weeks after his tragedy, there were so many people constantly coming through our house, stopping and telling stories, people from all over the country. I was like, ‘How do you know him?’
“And you should see the piles of letters that are at our house, people’s stories. People who are being recruited here and people who have signed for next year have sent my family really nice, long letters explaining Fran’s impact on them. And younger kids who are swimming and who Fran went on a national junior-team trip with as like a national-team mentor.”
Claire has stories of her own, of course. Four years younger than Fran, she followed him to UVa and, like her brother, joined Mark Bernardino’s powerful swimming program. Claire and Fran were close, and she thinks of him every time she steps on the block. And she’ll never forget the phrases he would use to try to inspire her.
“I laughed at it when he would say it to me, but he would always tell me to chase my dreams and all this stuff about dreams,” Claire said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “He would just say these goofy quotes, like ‘Clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose.’ He would say that to me, and then he would say, ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.’
“And I would literally laugh in his face and be like, ‘Fran, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Just stop. Just let me be.’ He was joking, and I knew he was joking. It was just fun. He always was the funny guy in the family and would make us all laugh. I remember his smile. Now, looking back on it, that’s the stuff that he taught me.”
Fran, the ACC swimmer of the year in 2003 and ’04, was an eight-time ACC champion and 11-time All-American at UVa. He died Oct. 23 while competing at the 10K World Cup open-water race near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
He was 26. Survivors include his three siblings — sisters Maddy, Claire and Teresa, all standout swimmers, too. Maddy starred at Villanova, not far from the family’s home in Conshohocken, Pa., near Philadelphia, and competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics at Sydney, Australia. Teresa is a junior at the University of Florida, where she earned All-America honors and helped the Gators win the NCAA title last year.
Claire, a fourth-year at UVa, is a two-time ACC champion (2008 and ’09) in the 400-yard individual medley. She holds the school record for women in the 400 IM and also has swum the third-fastest 200 butterfly and the fifth-fastest 200 IM. She also swims freestyle for the 11th-ranked Wahoos.
After learning of Fran’s death, Claire went home to be with her family. When she returned to UVa, Bernardino said, he did not give her special treatment.
“She would not have wanted that,” he said. “I think she’s been the greatest example of courage to the coaches and to the athletes that you could ever hope for. Her strength supersedes the strength of all of us. She’s absolutely been amazing in her perspective. She’s been amazing in her daily approach to sport. She’s been amazing in her daily approach to school. She’s been a great, great inspiration to me and, I think, to her family and to her teammates.”
Claire is a team captain this season, and during her college career UVa’s women have never lost an ACC dual meet. She’s made immense contributions to a program that next month in Atlanta will try to capture its fourth consecutive ACC championship.
“She’s very, very humble,” Bernardino said, “but she has a very strong work ethic, and she’s very outspoken in terms of promoting team excellence and daily excellence in the practice pool. She has the best interest of the team at heart and the best interest of her teammates at heart.”
Sounds a lot like the Crippen who preceded Claire at UVa.
“They’re very, very similar in how they approach their team and how they approach their sport,” Bernardino said. “I think Fran had the world-class dream and was a world-class athlete. I don’t think Claire dreams the world-class dream, although I think she has more talent than she’s ever realized. But in terms of how they treat people, man, are they similar. They’re so highly regarded by their teammates and their friends for the amount of respect and care that they share with others.”
In the end, though, “Claire is Claire,” Bernardino said. “It’s not fair for me to judge Maddy, but behind the blocks Claire is looser than Fran, though Fran was pretty calm and pretty fun and pretty relaxed behind the blocks as well. I always saw him talking to his teammates before their races and encouraging them. Fran was the kind of guy that would talk to the timers behind the blocks before he stepped up. Fran was locked in, but I don’t think he carried that locked-in mentality every second. It was there, and he knew it was there, and he was locked in to what he wanted to do, but he didn’t have to have this incredibly ferocious demeanor behind the block.
“But Claire has the most relaxed demeanor behind the block probably of any athlete on our team. She never stops smiling, she never stops laughing. She’s a little different from Fran and, according to Claire, very, very different than Teresa’s persona behind the block.”
Claire chuckled when talking about her younger sister, against whom she’s competed for much of their lives.
“It’s so funny, because she is the complete opposite person that I am,” Claire said. “She is so focused and so in the swimming mindset before a race, and I’m sitting there behind the block, kind of laughing and joking around sometimes, and trying to get her to laugh with me.”
Like her siblings, Claire graduated from Germantown Academy, where the Crippens swam for the legendary coach Dick Shoulberg. “It was really hard for me in high school,” Claire said, “because I felt every day I was compared to my brother and sisters.”
So when it came time for Claire to choose a college, she was wary of UVa.
“When I came on a trip here, I said point-blank to Mark, ‘Mark, I don’t want to be compared to Maddy or Fran or any of my siblings for four more years of my life,’ ” Claire said. “And he just said, ‘I can’t worry about swimmers I’ve had in the past or your siblings. All I can worry about is the people in the pool right now, swimming for me.’ So that was that. It kind of sealed the deal, right then and there.”
Bernardino said: “That was very important to her. She didn’t want to be Fran’s little sister. I think she wanted to be Claire Crippen and nobody else. And Claire Crippen is a very, very special person. And while I think there’s a common thread that flows through the Crippen family and the Crippen children, I think if you asked any of the other Crippen family members, ‘Tell us what the most distinguishing characteristic about Claire is,’ they’d say, ‘You’ll never find a more positive, happy, outgoing person.’
“You cannot wipe the smile off of her face. You can’t take the joy out of her heart. She just finds the good in everything that you can find good in. She searches for good.”
Claire, a psychology major, is likely to work for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation after graduating from UVa ths spring. Fran had been a co-founder of Elevation Athletics, an event-management company,, along with three other former UVa swimmers: Ryan Hurley, Lee Robertson and T.J. Southmayd.
The foundation, established by the Crippen family after Fran’s death, will provide financial assistance to athletes who have trouble covering travel expenses, Claire said, and to advocate for safety in events such as the open-water race during which her brother died.
The Crippen parents, Pete and Pat, were in town over the weekend for Claire’s final home dual meets, which turned out to be wins over North Carolina (Saturday) and Duke (Sunday). After the UNC meet, the parents of the swimmers and divers on the 2010-11 men’s and women’s teams presented the Crippens with a new bench that will sit in the AFC lobby, in Fran’s memory. Also in his memory, a tree was planted outside the AFC.
When this season ends, Bernardino will enter unfamiliar territory. For the first time in what figures to seem like ages, there will not be a Crippen in the Cavaliers’ program.
The 2005-06 season was Fran’s last as a UVa swimmer, but “in all of our hearts Fran had never left us these last four years,” Bernardino said. “I’m not sure that he missed more than one or two home meets that Claire swam in over the course of her career. So he was always here. He didn’t go a month without being in Charlottesville.
“But I feel as though that family will always be a significant and important part of our program. They’ve left a legacy of leadership, they’ve left a legacy of swimming excellence, they’ve left a family legacy and lessons for all athletes that I think will last forever.”