Swimmer finishes 10th, carrying memories of friend
Alex Meyer was swimming for more than himself at the Olympics.
He brought along the memory of his buddy, Fran Crippen.
Maybe it was a little too much to put on one guy's shoulders.
Meyer finished a disappointing 10th in the men's open water Olympic marathon at Hyde Park on Friday, ending an emotional ride that began when Crippen drowned two years ago during a World Cup race in the sweltering Middle East.
Meyer was there when his friend died. In fact, he was the one who noticed Crippen was missing, finally persuading race officials to launch a search.
Crippen's body was found two hours later, the tragedy exposing a shocking lack of safety in the high-risk sport.
Meyer just misses his buddy.
''The past couple of years have been pretty ... ,'' he said, looking down and struggling to compose himself, ''well, uh, pretty lonely.''
Meyer got off to a decent start but he got caught up in a pack of swimmers and was never really a factor. Ous Mellouli of Tunisia broke away to win the gold, becoming the first athlete to claim medals in the pool and open water at the same Olympics.
Having gulped plenty of the rather fishy-smelling water from The Serpentine, Meyer let out a big belch once he was done.
''That's pretty much how I felt,'' he joked. ''I felt all right for a while. I just didn't have that extra little bit to bring it home in the second half of the race.''
He was certainly swimming with a bit of a lump in his throat.
Meyer got a call from Crippen's parents the night before, telling him ''good luck and be safe.'' While he tried not to put too much pressure on himself, it was hard to get away from trying to fulfill the dream he once shared with his friend.
''It's definitely been an emotional time for me,'' Meyer said, staring at the ground. ''I've had a lot of emotions and feelings. I've tried to keep my mind off things and just relax and soak up the experience. But yeah, definitely, I was pretty nervous this morning.''
Meyer wasn't the only one thinking of Crippen on this day.
''Fran Crippen became a legend,'' said Mellouli, the gold medalist.
Silver medalist Thomas Lurz of Germany noticed all the safety improvements that followed Crippen's death. There were plenty of rescue boats and kayaks patrolling the Olympic course, keeping a close eye on everyone - especially a 16-year-old swimmer from Guam who finished nearly 14 minutes behind the winner.
''Many things have changed,'' Lurz said.
Not enough, according to Meyer.
Last year at the world championships in Shanghai, the races were held in stifling conditions, the temperature of the water hovering right at newly recommended limits that are supposed to reduce the chances of another tragedy. Some coaches wanted the event halted, but it went on. An Italian swimmer was overcome by the heat and had to be pulled from the water.
''There's definitely more that needs to be done,'' Meyer said. ''Look what we saw last summer. We had the recommendation for certain water temperatures that was ignored. We need hard and fast rules. But that's easier said than done. It depends on the conditions, the distance, the caliber of athletes. It's definitely not an easy thing to figure out, but we're working on it.''
He worries that while USA Swimming has made safety a primary concern since Crippen's death, other countries aren't as concerned. He wants FINA, the world governing body, to take a lead role.
''As far as FINA is concerned, the whole safety thing, at least for now, is perceived as an American issue,'' Meyer said. ''Maybe that's just because we are the most vocal about it. After all, we lost one of our guys. But the fact is, it's not just us. Everybody should be concerned about it.''
FINA says it's doing everything it can to prevent a repeat of the tragedy, including sonar technology to keep track of swimmers and more rescue boats - even scuba divers - to ensure everyone is monitored.
While Lurz celebrated his medal, he said it was important to remember what Crippen meant to the sport, and not to forget him at a time when the open water reveled in its once-every-four-years moment in the spotlight.
''He wanted to take part here and swim this race,'' Lurz said. ''I thought about Fran before the race and during the race. ... It was a big loss for our sport when he passed away.''
No one felt the loss more than Meyer.
His coaches don't want him to look at his 10th-place finish as a failure.
''Alex had a large group of family and friends here supporting him,'' said Tim Murphy, head coach of the U.S. team. ''I hope he doesn't feel like he let them down, because I don't think he did. It was just a tough open water race.''
The kind of race Crippen would have loved.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963.