Young Athletes Dying: What Can We Learn from Dan Wheldon?

In the wake of Dan Wheldon’s inexplicable passing on Sunday in Las Vegas, I can’t help but think about other times in the recent past where young men have died entertaining an audience — times when men who are within a decade of my own age, taking a calculated risk in a game of speed and engineering, have succumbed to sheer misfortune and paid for it with their lives.

It feels like I’ve had to write some pretty tough obituaries in the past few years in sports, with everyone from titans of football industry to a trio of hockey players all leaving the planet at various stages of their lives, some long-lived, some less so, all hard-fought to the end. But rare are the instances where we see a man or woman die on a baseball field, or a soccer pitch, or even a gridiron or hockey rink.

In some sports we can at least find the intrinsic value of teamwork… and in a couple of these examples there ostensibly is teamwork within the framework of the sport. But ultimately what these few events come down to are one person’s instincts, how well they can deal with the ever-shifting situations around them and manage their way through a precariously fast situation. All have taken lives within the past 20 months, and in all the show must go on…

In the wake of each death was renewed emphasis on the need for safety. But what that belies is the very essence of each sport. Safety is always the critical concern, but it comes in the guise of trying to most safely push the envelope of what is possible. The luge track designed to be faster than any previously created, the next mountain pass discovery with more switchbacks than the last, the race car never intended for the track on which it is racing — all are a product of our desire as fans to see sports push the boundaries of citius, altius, fortius

So what do we learn from this?

12 February 2010: Kumaritashvili and the Olympic Luge Tragedy

(originally published in the Olympic thoughts for Day 1 and Day 2 during my time at FanNation; click links for full articles)

Nodar Kumaritashvili: 25 Nov 1988-12 Feb 2010

For just the fourth time in Winter Olympics history, an athlete has died in the course of preparing for competition in his sport. Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, lined up to take his sixth and final training run down the Whistler track this afternoon. Little looked out of whack with his run. Kumaritashvili was having his best run of the week to date… while still under the speeds of the world’s top competitors, the Georgian was still clocked at 89.4 mph down what has been widely declared to be the fastest sliding course on the planet. Nothing looked amiss until the penultimate Turn 16 when Kumaritashvili found himself too high going into the turn.

And then, just like that, Kumaritashvili came down too steep diagonally down the bank of the turn, careening from one side to the other and clipping the top of the wall coming down the back into the straightaway. He came away from his sled, hitting the corner into the final straight and flailing as he flew across and over the track. He collided with an unpadded steel pole and landed on a metal walkway running to the left side of the track. Assistance was on the scene quickly, but with the kind of momentum that the 176-pound Kumaritashvili slammed into the steel there was little hope of his recovery.

So before we even begin the official start of the Games, tragedy has once again struck. In Beijing two years ago, it was the Great Wall stabbing carried out by Tang Yongming against Todd and Barbara Bachman, in-laws of U.S. volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, which cast a somber pall on the Olympiad. The death in Whistler today is undeniably sad, and it should certainly force the Vancouver organizers to at least take precautions to pad the exposed metal around the volatile sections of the track before another luger, skeleton racer or bobsledder takes to the course. But at least this wasn’t a senseless homicide. We know that Kumaritashvili at least died chasing his Olympic dream. The saddest part of the entire ordeal is the fact that Kumaritashvili fell just short of that dream, no matter how good his chances might’ve been going into the competition.

In the wake of Kumaritashvili’s death, the Olympic organizers have made the decision to continue on with the luge competition as planned… but with some revisions to the program. Now the men will be starting lower on the track from the same starting gate as the women. Because the track stays so steep so consistently, this will have the effect of lowering overall speeds on the course — we saw this in early training runs. Tony Benshoof of the United States went first on the day, slower than he had been going from the higher start and looking tentative in his movements. Everyone who followed reported slower speeds, and all looked to some extent to be coping with the loss of their comrade from the World Cup circuit.

The track was also raised around Turn 16, the place where Kumaritashvili met his demise. Organizers hope that any carom effect experienced by the Georgian would be prevented from slingshoting the lugers out of the track altogether. Padding has also been added to all the steel reinforcements along the course, a preventative measure that could possibly have allowed Kumaritashvili to at least stay alive. While the force of his impact likely would have seen him still out of the Olympics, it is sad that something as simple as padding was not in place to keep things from becoming fatal.

The show goes on, but at least some things have been learned in the wake of Kumaritashvili’s death. Hopefully going forward into Olympic history, the IOC will take these lessons and apply them to all future sliding courses prior to the first athlete’s race down the chute. The Olympians will get their shot at the medal tomorrow — the men take their first two competition runs this evening, with the third and fourth runs settling the medals tomorrow…

23 October 2010: Crippen’s Unfortunate Passing in Open Water

(originally published in an earlier forum on Sports Nickel; reprinted here in its entirety)

Fran Crippen: 17 Apr 1984-23 Oct 2010

You know, it’s always weird to think about someone barely younger than yourself dying. Whether you are 17 or 77, it’s never an easy thing seeing a contemporary pass away. I may be just 27, but I’ve had to come to grips with death before in my life. And whether it was someone near and dear to me, a cherished elder or even my peer as has been the case in the past, it is never an easy concept to fathom. But seeing a contemporary pass away puts things into real perspective. Even when it is someone you’ve never known, and barely followed throughout his or her lifetime, when a person who is just about your age passes from this world into whatever may sit on the horizon beyond it really jars things and makes you ponder the realities of mortality.

I was at work today when I got a text message from fellow Sports Nickel writer Dan Vachalek — Fran Crippen had just died in the FINA Open Water 10km World Cup off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. Racing in the Sea of Oman, at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula that marks the entry to the Persian Gulf, the 26-year-old swimmer was competing as one of the top men in his sport. He won a bronze medal at the distance at the 2009 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Rome two Julys ago and was hoping to end his 2010 with a bang. But the water was hot off the coast of Fujairah, nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and Crippen’s body simply couldn’t handle it…

He wasn’t the only one. Three other racers were hospitalized with some sort of heat stroke or exhaustion, though all have recovered fully without too much ill effect. It was only Crippen who was unable to sustain life in this instance. But even the top finishers of the race were having problems with the adverse conditions. As runner-up Evgeny Drattsev noted after the finish, “The water was really hot and it was a kind of new experience for me here.”

Nobody can prepare for adverse conditions. Should the race officials have suspended the competition when they realized that the water was too hot? Should they have pulled Crippen out of the race the first time he complained of not feeling well eight kilometers into the 10km race on the 2-kilo triangular course?

In hindsight it’s easy to say that the racers were forced to compete in inhumane surroundings, that they should’ve suspended the competition until the water was better. But in such a situation sponsors have lined up to promote the event, fans and curious locals have come out to see the race, and the swimmers have converged from around the globe at this one point and time and are itching to go.

After all, everyone had to compete in the same water. Drattsev finished, as did winner Thomas Lurz and every other challenger. A dive team found Crippen’s body soon after the search began, but by the time a dive team is needed it’s simply too late.

With a sport as niche as swimming — especially open-water swimming — the truth is that there really isn’t much more that can be done to protect the swimmers. The FINA ensures that every precaution possible is taken within the fiscal realities of the sport. And every competitor knows this. They aren’t baseball players raking in millions, or guys like Wayne Rooney commanding $300,000 a week for their services. No, they are humble realists, competing for the love of the sport and whatever remuneration might come.

Open-water swimmers are a particularly hearty breed. While a pool can fairly easily be regulated, the sea cannot. That’s the beauty and the curse of it, the fact that you’re competing as much against the elements as against your fellow athletes. Each knows the extremes that this can entail, and they prepare for this accordingly as much as one possibly can. Usually someone gets there in time. For the first time in the history of swimming, someone could not.

So, as FINA president Julio Maglione has stated in the wake of the tragedy, “All was under strict rules that exist in our competition. All was absolutely correct. It was an accident, a terrible accident.”

An accident indeed, one in hindsight that we can only prevent in the future by vigilantly asserting that athletes (in any sport) be sidelined for their own safety once they personally assert their own ill feelings. May Crippen be somewhere in another life, be that what it may for him (since none of us can know until we get there ourselves), doing what he loved most — swimming to his heart’s content, taking to the water and carving each stroke out with the tender care of a master craftsman plying his trade on the open water of whatever reality exists beyond…

09 May 2011: A Burgeoning Champion Dies Before His Time

(excerpted from Sports Nickel; click here to read full obituary)

Wouter Weylandt: 27 Sep 1984-09 May 2011

Today we were confronted with the need to sum up a young man’s life, ended with a horrible sort of symmetry. At the Giro d’Italia on Monday, mortality struck for one cyclist as his life was snatched away just as he was ascending into the prime years of his chosen profession.

A year ago Wouter Weylandt was a rising star in the peloton, earning the biggest stage victory of his blossoming career. On Stage 3 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, Wouter Weylandt won the pancake-flat stage from Amsterdam to Middelburg on the race’s last day of its sojourn into the Netherlands. Outkicking an outstanding bunch of sprinters for a breakaway, everyone from HTC’s Andre Greipel to Rabobank’s Graeme Brown to Milram’s Robert Forster and Lampre’s Danilo Hondo, Weylandt added a Giro stage to a growing list of successes, his second grand-tour stage victory after taking the bunch sprint on Stage 17 of the 2008 Vuelta a España. He would later be forced to withdraw from the race in its final week, suffering from dehydration and back in the hospital in his hometown of Ghent, Belgium.

Oh, if only it had been simple enough to just draw a needle and tap an IV drip to revive the Belgian today as his corpse was futilely tended to by paramedics quickly on the scene. On the technical descent of the Passo del Bocco, Weylandt looked over his shoulder to assess whether to sit up and wait for the trailing group or punch the pedals and try to integrate with the group ahead. It was in all likelihood his last conscious decision — with his eyes drawn from the road ahead, either his left pedal or the left side of his handlebars struck a wall, launching the rider and his bicycle to the other side of the road and into the barriers on the opposite side.

Anyone who has ever descended a mountain pass on a bicycle knows that, while the uphill may set fire to the legs and the lungs, it is the descent that yields the true dangers. Even the most innocuous of downgrades can spin the skinny tires on road bikes fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour under skilled guidance. Every bump in the pavement, every rock in the path is a death trap in the making.

How do you respond to the death of a man just as young as yourself? Weylandt was just embarking on the next chapter of his career, moving to the new Leopard-Trek team in the offseason after spending his entire professional career with Quick Step to that point. After years of assisting Tom Boonen through the cobblestone classics, the former winner of the under-23 version of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (in 2004) had transferred his loyalties and offered his services in support of Fabian Cancellara. He and his girlfriend Sophie had become expectant parents, their first child on the way and due in September. Personally and professionally everything seemed to be looking up for Weylandt.

And then we were reminded about how the most innocuous of actions can have rippling repercussions, how a seemingly insignificant glance over the shoulder can sow the seeds of our demise. Nobody knows when the Great Scorer will blow the whistle and end the journey, and for athletes competing in a sport far dangerous than is usually given credit that last pulsating heartbeat can be lurking around any blind corner…

16 October 2011: Death of an Open-Wheel Champion

(excerpted from yesterday’s post; click here to read full obituary)

Dan Wheldon: 22 Jun 1978-16 Oct 2011

October 16, 2011 was an ominous day for open-wheel auto racing. Earlier in the day Sebastian Vettel had punctuated his second straight F1 driver championship with his tenth victory of the season, and Mark Webber’s podium finish ensured that Red Bull would also win its second manufacturer’s title. Attention turned across the Pacific to the final day of the IZOD IndyCar Series, as Dario Franchitti and Will Power were separated by just 18 points in the race to win the season championship prior to the final race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But just a dozen laps into the race, cars started getting loose going into turn 2. First one group, and then another, started sliding around and bursting into flames. Fifteen cars total would be destroyed, and the red flag soon came out as the race was neutralized by IndyCar. One car would get airborne, flying across the bow of several others, working its way up the track into the wall before tumbling and shearing and leaving its nuts and bolts across the oval.

Inside, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 series champion Dan Wheldon was bounced and jostled. The 33-year-old Englishman, who despite winning this year’s race at Indy was without a ride during the 2011 season, was making a special appearance in just his third race of the season in Sin City and hoping to collect a $5 million league bonus for part-time drivers in the season finale. Airlifted to University Hospital at UNLV, doctors frantically worked on Wheldon’s massive list of injuries.

But there was simply nothing that the medical crew could do for the Englishman. Soon after the announcement of Wheldon’s passing had made its way around the garage, where tears were flowing freely among both teammates and longtime rivals, a statement was released. “IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard told reporters in the only official comments yet released. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners, have decided to end the race. In honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute to in his honor.”

Before the race had even started, there had been fears that something detrimental might happen on the 1.5-mile oval. The tight confines of the track, coupled with cars that had been hitting speeds over 225 miles per hour in practice and qualifying sessions, left many fearing an incident of this nature. But just as in the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at Whistler Sliding Centre prior to the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics, retrospect grants the survivors the ability to wonder what if anything might have been done to better prevent the fatality of an athlete…

Four men, four sports, all gone far sooner than any had expected that last day they woke up and went to the office of their making. What does this tell us about our sports… what does this tell us about ourselves?

Human nature dictates that, as terrible as the cost can sometimes be, we continue to seek out greater results than past generations were able to achieve. The ocean swimmer pushes his body in temperatures unfit for sea life, while the luger tries to tame whatever course the engineers can create. The cyclist will always take his calculated risks, and even were IndyCar to forever ditch ovals and restrict the speeds on their cars there would still be the chance that the race will end with an autopsy.

So what can we learn from these deaths? Young men and women are going to push the limits of engineering, and gravity, and will play with speeds unheard of to the forbears of their sports. The same drive that leads some athletes to try to enhance their performance by means other than training also leads course designers to take risks in order to heighten the challenges ahead for the athletes. About all we can do is cherish each moment that we do get to see our favorite athletes in action, because one moment can instantaneously leave us living only in those memories we have stored up over time…

Kumaritashvili died living a dream last February. So did Crippen last October, and Weylandt in May, and Wheldon yesterday. Sports are games played by mortals not just against themselves, or against a field of competitors, but against the very nature of life and the universe. And sometimes, when nature and circumstance overpower the situation, we are forced to confront that mortality directly.

Get more great sports analysis over at GlobalTurnstile.


Popular Video