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Embracing a Legacy

Claire Crippen makes her own mark while honoring her brother

Claire Crippen Matt Riley

As a high school student in Pennsylvania, Claire Crippen (Col ’11) wasn’t particularly motivated to become a part of her older brother Fran’s heritage at UVA. He’d had an intimidating run before graduating in 2006—ACC Swimmer of the Year in 2003 and 2004, eight-time ACC champion and 11-time All-American. But Claire, a 12-time high school All-American, was blessed with her own distinct talents and had her own goals.

Now, however, in the months following Fran’s death last October while swimming in an open-water race and the outpouring of support from people whose lives he touched, Claire has a different attitude about her connection with Fran’s legacy.

“I have learned so much from him, and I’m clearly following in his footsteps,” Claire says. “That’s probably something that I didn’t want to do back when I was a senior in high school, but now it’s an honor to follow in his footsteps. The legacy he left here—I’m just so happy that I can be a part of that.”

Like many siblings, Claire felt the pressure of comparisons, not only to Fran but also to her two sisters. All four were strong swimmers who developed within the same programs and clubs, where specific training methods funneled them toward the 400-yard individual medley. Fran, who made his name internationally as a long-distance freestyle specialist, set the UVA Aquatics and Fitness Center’s pool record in the 400 IM.

Claire started to swim the 400 IM when she began taking swimming seriously in eighth grade, and in short order she turned the event into her showcase race. Her efforts peaked this year at the ACC Championships, where she blazed her way to a time of 4:07.29—good for ACC and school records, plus her third career title in the 400 IM at the ACC meet. She also nabbed a 13th-place finish at the NCAA Championships in the event.

Her family, which has produced four All-American swimmers, is a dynasty within the sport, though they hardly act the part. The Crippens’ parents, Peter and Patricia, never overemphasized the role of swimming as part of their children’s identity, Claire says.

The family’s strength was tested last fall when Fran died during an open-water swimming event in the United Arab Emirates. The entire swimming community—international as well as national—closed ranks around the Crippens in the ensuing healing process, reaching out to support the family in various ways. Many responded because Fran had touched their lives directly, giving his siblings a glimpse of his impact beyond the pool.

Among swimmers, Fran still serves as an inspiration. When the Cavalier men finished eighth this year in the NCAA Championships, the team’s highest finish ever, head coach Mark Bernardino said, “We faced adversity earlier this year when we lost Fran, and I think these guys all year swam for him.”

Indeed, when fourth-year Matt McLean won the NCAA championship in the 500 freestyle in March, he said, “That was for Fran.”

“We know Fran was looking down and smiling because that was one of his best events,” Bernardino added.

Much like her ability in the 400 IM, Claire shares a drive that distinguished her brother—a desire to influence younger athletes and give back to the swimming community. This summer Claire will head to Vietnam as part of the Coach for College program, where she will coach volleyball and teach health as part of the program.

After that, she plans eventually to pursue a graduate degree in education, but things are wide open right now. Increasingly, though, it appears that swimming at the elite level could be a part of Claire’s past.

“It’s not out of the question yet, but [Olympic] trials are still a year and a half away, and I have a lot of goals and things that I want to do,” Claire says. “I really am looking forward to the next stage of my life.”