By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a span of about five weeks, Matt McLean cemented his status as one of the greatest swimmers in UVa history.
First, he helped UVa win a fourth consecutive ACC championship and was named MVP of the conference meet for the third time in his career.
Then he won the NCAA title in the 500 freestyle and led the Cavaliers to an eighth-place finish at the NCAAs, their best ever.
Finally, last week, the 6-6, 215-pound senior from Sterling was named ACC swimmer of the year, an award he also received as a freshman in 2008.
No one would have cheered McLean’s accomplishments louder than Fran Crippen. Of that, another UVa swimmer feels confident.
“Fran really mentored Matt,” Claire Crippen said. “It was something really special between the two of them, because they swam the same events.”
Claire’s brother, a giant in the swimming world, died on Oct. 23, 2010, while competing at the 10K World Cup open-water race near Dubai.
The ACC swimmer of the year in 2003 and ’04, Fran Crippen was an 11-time All-American at UVa, where Claire enrolled in 2007.
McLean, a graduate of Potomac Falls High School, also joined Virginia’s program that year. Growing up in Northern Virginia, he had admired Fran Crippen’s work ethic, focus and intensity.
“He just always had such a great reputation,” McLean said. “I met him my first year here, and it was really cool to finally meet somebody that I’d always looked up to that much, and eventually get to be friends with someone that I had that much respect for.”
McLean was at UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center when he learned of Fran Crippen’s passing. The news floored Virginia coach Mark Bernardino and his swimmers. Not only had the Cavaliers lost an legendary alumnus who was still a major presence in the program, they worried about his death’s effect on Claire.
“As much as I love Fran, I’m definitely closer with Claire, and my heart absolutely broke for her,” McLean said. “Someone I care about as much as her, I just wish that I could do something for her.”
It’s not overstating things to say McLean was on a mission this season. What better way to honor Fran’s memory, and to lift Claire’s spirits, than to try to meet the standards Fran set at UVa?
“He just had such a profound impact on me,” McLean said, “and if I had a good swim, he’d be the first one I heard from. In the Olympic Trials in 2008, I missed finals [in the 400 free] by one spot, and I was just devastated. Fran was right there, cheering me up.”
Before the finals on the last night of the ACC men’s meet in Atlanta, UVa’s swimmers continued a tradition by writing a large block V in marker on their chests. This time, though, they added the initials FC beneath the V and “over our hearts,” McLean recalled.
McLean won the 500 and 1,650 freestyle titles in Atlanta and helped UVa capture the 400 and 800 freestyle relays. After he touched the wall in the 1,650, McLean “literally came up out of the water and was pounding his chest and pointing to the initials FC,” Bernardino said.
The NCAA championships were held in Minneapolis. “Going into the meet, I was thinking, ‘How great would it be to win that and do it for Fran?’ ” McLean said.
He placed fourth in the 200 and 1,650 free. He anchored the 400 free relay team that finished sixth and led off the 800 free relay team that was NCAA runner-up. McLean’s finest moment, of course, came in the 500 free, a race in which his competition included defending champion Conor Dwyer of Florida and Stanford’s Bobby Bollier, both of whom have international experience.
“I knew with 125 yards to go that he had broken them,” Bernardino said, “that he had broken away from them in the water. His pace had increased to such an intense level that there was no catching him.”
Watching McLean, Bernardino said, “I was not a nervous wreck at all, because of how perfectly he executed the race plan. He’s worked for four years to try to execute this race that way, where he descended the final four 100s in the race and got faster and stronger in each single 50 as he went along. But I really wanted to see his reaction. I was anxious to see what happened when he touched the wall, when he looked to his right and he looked to his left, and then he turned around and saw, ‘Wow, I won.’ “
McLean did not disappoint his coach.
“He literally leaped out of the water, he had both hands up in the air like this,” said Bernardino, demonstrating, “and he immediately turned to the team bench and was saying, ‘Virginia! Virginia!’ to those guys.”
McLean said: “I was thrilled. That was the greatest moment of my life.”
Never in Minneapolis was his late mentor far from McLean’s thoughts.
“I think about Fran every day, and I was definitely thinking about him in preparation for the races,” McLean said. “He was probably the first thing I thought about when I finished.”
That McLean triumphed in one of Crippen’s signature events, Bernardino said, was “very symbolic. There was a lot of symbolism and, I think, a lot of closure for Matt, because Fran and he were very, very close. He idolized Fran. Fran was one of his heroes. He frequently asked to do the same training sets that Fran did.”
Claire Crippen, a three-time ACC champion in the 400 individual medley, was not able to watch McLean in person in Atlanta or Minneapolis. She learned of McLean’s NCAA title, in fact, in a phone call from her father.
“He was thrilled for Matt,” Claire said, and so was she. Claire was one of the first people to see McLean when he got back to Charlottesville from Minneapolis.
“He and I definitely had a special connection this season,” Claire said. “I always knew Fran was a role model for Matt, and I think he trusted Matt to be a brother to me and be his eyes when he wasn’t here. It was touching to see Matt, in all of his interviews, talk about Fran.”
McLean will no doubt inspire future generations of UVa swimmers. He showed remarkable perseverance after battling illnesses, including swine flu, that limited his success as a junior in 2009-10.
“A lot of athletes may have been devastated or may have been crushed and allowed the disappointment to take away their focus or take away their intensity,” Bernardino said. “But he used the disappointment as a springboard for success. He used the disappointment for motivation. He came back last summer and had a tremendous summer, changed his training routine, left here with our blessing and our encouragement and went out to California.”
In Fullerton, McLean trained with other elite swimmers under the direction of Bernardino’s friend Jon Urbancheck, the former coach at Michigan.
“It was great to get several other points of view,” McLean said. “There were great training guys out there, some of the best in the world, and Jon Urbancheck is one of the most accomplished, respected and well-liked distance coaches of all time. So it was an honor to have that opportunity, and I just took everything I could from it. I tried to be like a sponge and just take everything in, and I think I learned to be a smarter athlete while I was out there.”
A sociology major, McLean is on track to graduate next month. He hopes to be in London next year, competing for the United States in the Summer Olympics.
“He is an absolute, definite contender to make the team, especially the way he’s come on the last two years,” Bernardino said.
McLean said: “Right now I’m not ready to stop swimming. It’s what I love. It’s what my passion is. I’m going to do it for as long as I can.”