Swimming sibs: Olympics trump family feuds

About seven years ago, Madeleine "Maddy'' Crippen's status as the fastest swimmer in her family was in serious jeopardy.

Forget about Olympic bids, college scholarships, and world and national championships. This was serious. This was for family bragging rights.

Maddy, 16 at the time, was in Lane 3 at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. Her brother, Fran, then 12 (now a second-year swimmer for UVA), was in Lane 1 and closing fast.

"I was doing the 200 (individual medley), and I thought I was by myself,'' Maddy says. "My brother came from behind, and he was beating me. That's the first time I remember it."

Says Fran: "I remember it like it was last year. I knew I was beating her.'' When they returned to their home in Conshohocken, the entire family knew about it, too, including their father, Peter, and sisters Claire, now 15, and Teresa, now 13.

"It was a milestone,'' says mom Patricia Crippen. ``He was always the little guy in the pool and somewhat annoying. All of a sudden, he decided to turn it up. She knew it was coming. I think she's accepted him passing her more than anybody else.''

As their careers progressed, the Crippens' relationship moved beyond sibling rivalry.

When the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials are held in Long Beach, California in July, expect Fran and Maddy to be keeping one eye on the competition and one eye on how the other is doing. If they don't both reach the Olympic Games in Athens– scheduled for August 13-29– it will likely be the last time they're in a competitive meet together.

"They are wonderful together,'' says Germantown Academy coach Dick Shoulberg. "They draw strength from each other."

Maddy, 23, a 2000 Olympian, plans to retire after the summer and pursue a career in public or media relations; she graduated from Villanova last year with a degree in communications. Fran, 19, in his second year at the University of Virginia, likely will pursue an Olympic berth at least once more after this year.

It will be the second time they have competed together at the Olympic trials. On August 9, 2000, in Indianapolis, Maddy finished second in the 400-meter individual medley to qualify for the Games in Sydney, Australia, with a time of 4 minutes, 42.81 seconds. She placed sixth in Sydney, in 4:44.63, after which she reached up from the pool to hug Fran, who was getting ready to race in the 400-meter freestyle final. He placed seventh with a time of 3:54.96.

"I was on emotion,'' Fran says of trying to race after watching his sister make the team minutes earlier. ``I wasn't as focused on my race. My family was up in the stands. They were elated.'"

Those who have been involved say there's not a more pressure-packed meet than the U.S. Olympic trials, not even the Olympics themselves. Only the top two swimmers in each event qualify for the Olympics. Because the talent pool is so deep, some of the world's best swimmers may not even advance.

"It's definitely a life-changing experience,'' Fran Crippen says. "I haven't swum under the pressure I will at the Olympic trials.'"

As a 16-year-old four years ago, Fran wasn't supposed to qualify for the Olympic Games. Maddy knew, however, that it was her time.

"It would have been devastating,'' Maddy says, if she hadn't made the Olympics team four years ago. "I would have gotten over it, but the last four years would have been different.''

Fran, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, and Maddy, 5-7, 135, both have realistic shots of reaching Athens. Among the 33 qualifiers in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle, Fran is ranked fifth with a time of 15:19.63. Larsen Jensen of Bakersfield, California, is first at 15:00.81. Fran is listed eighth in the 400 freestyle at 3:51.64 among 41 qualifiers; Baltimore sensation Michael Phelps is first at 3:46.73.

"I think he's progressed really well,'' says Virginia assistant coach Bill Smyth of Fran. "He's not afraid to lay himself on the line for anything he's asked to do.''

A three-time all-American, Fran Crippen was third in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the NCAA championships as a freshman last year. At the Pan American Games last summer in the Dominican Republic, he was second in the 400-meter freestyle and the 1,500-meter freestyle.

"He's done a marvelous job at Virginia,'' Shoulberg says.

Fran is training mainly at Virginia under Smyth and Cavaliers head coach Mark Bernardino, but Shoulberg is still involved. Fran swam with Germantown Academy during winter break, and both Shoulberg and Maddy spent a week training in Charlottesville in October.

"She was clearly on top of her game and swimming faster than I've seen her since the Olympics,'' Smyth says.

Of the 61 trials qualifiers in the 400 individual medley, Maddy is listed fourth at 4:43.75. Maggie Bowen of Jackson, Mississippi, is first in 4:39.06.

Freshman Claire Crippen (400 IM) and eighth grader Teresa Crippen (200 backstroke), talented swimmers themselves at Germantown, already have made senior national cuts. Patricia Crippen says they might join the family for the trials.

As for Maddy and Fran, there's no pressure from home. Only pride.

"If the end result is they make the Olympic team, so be it,'' Patricia says. ``The process has been wonderful. Fran is enjoying where he is.

"Maddy is an Olympian, and she has that to hang on to. All you can do is be there and give them a hug. We're lucky to have them involved in such a positive thing.''

UVA swimmer Fran Crippen,19, and his sister, Maddy, 23, hope to reach the Olympic Games in Athens this summer.