Norway has never been an international powerhouse in the sport of swimming, but in the wake of tragedy last year a hero was born. Three days after Anders Breivik killed 77 people during a bombing/shooting spree, Alexander Dale Oen won the 100-meter breaststroke at the world championships. As he celebrated, he pointed to the Norwegian flag on his swim cap acknowledging that his national pride had helped him accomplish such a feat.
Now the nation is in mourning again as Dale Oen died unexpectedly at the age of 26. He was found unconscious on the floor of his bathroom in late Monday morning in Flagstaff, Arizona where he was attending a training camp in preparation for the London Olympics this summer.
Dale Oen was rushed by ambulance to Flagstaff Medical Center but was pronounced dead upon arrival; an apparent victim of cardiac arrest.
No one has yet disclosed what caused the fatal episode and it is believed that doctors still don’t know yet. Still, given his age and physical shape, the diagnosis is certainly perplexing.
While I don’t want to speculate, immediately two thoughts came to me: either some sort of substance abuse or an enlarged heart. We’ve seen several athletes that, by all signs were perfectly healthy, fall dead unexpectedly to the often silent disease and it would be a shame if it has happened again.
Dale Oen’s death strikes at the heart of two recent and scary trends: deaths amongst swimmers and fatal cardiac events amongst athletes. In the last two months, two soccer players have collapsed mid-game due to Cardiac Arrest. Piermario Morosini suffered a heart attack while playing for Livorno last month and Fabrice Muamba collapsed while playing for Bolton the month before. Muamba survived his trauma but, sadly, Morosini did not.
Two years ago, American swimmer Fran Crippen died during a long-distance race in the United Arab Emirates. The official cause of death is somewhat convoluted, but seemed to entail some combination of heat stroke followed by drowning.
As news broke about Dale Oen, American swimmer Brendan Hansen couldn’t help but to compare the two tragedies
“You see a kid in his prime and never think anything like that could happen,” said Hansen to the Associated Press, “All of the sudden, they’re gone. You can’t help but feel sad. It looks so unfair.”
During the Beijing games in 2008, Dale Oen won the silver medal in the 100-Meter Breastroke, falling second only to Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima. Upon hearing the news of Dale Oen’s death, Kosuke tweeted yesterday, “In shock over the passing of a dear friend and great rival. RIP Alex.”
Kitajima will once again compete in the summer games where he will look to defend his gold medals in both the 100- and 200-Meter Breaststroke. Dale Oen was considered by many to be the most legitimate challenger in the 100-meter event.
For the country of Norway, though, and specifically the Norwegian Olympics team, this new comes as a heavy blow. Norway is not particularly a juggernaut when it comes to the Summer Olympics and Dale Oen was one of their few medal hopefuls. Now, just months before the games, his teammates must say goodbye to their friend.
Dale Oen wasn’t just a famous athlete in Norway, he was an icon. His feat in the wake of national mourning seemed to serve as a guiding light, perhaps the only light in what was otherwise a very dark time for the European nation.