An hour before Fran Crippen's funeral was set to start at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Conshohocken on Saturday, the receiving line stretched 2 1/2 blocks. The church, which holds 750 people, was already full and people were standing along the sides and back.

It was a testament to the charisma of a young athlete who, speakers said, touched people with both his competitive spirit and his infectious friendliness.

"The incredible ability to befriend anybody regardless of age was Fran's greatest asset," said Mark Bernardino, head coach of swimming and diving at the University of Virginia. Crippen, a professional swimmer who lived in his family home in Conshohocken, graduated from U.Va. in 2006.

Francis E. Crippen, 26, died Oct. 23 off the coast of the United Arab Emirates during the FINA Open Water 10K World Cup competition. He was the current 10K open-water swimming national champion and was recently named 2010 U.S. Open Water Swimmer of the Year. He dreamed of competing in the Olympics.

He reportedly was struggling in the 84-degree water toward the end of the race last week. FINA announced on Thursday that a task force would investigate the circumstances surrounding Crippen's death.

The funeral Saturday focused on Crippen's achievements, not questions about the race. It drew a noticeably young crowd, with more dark hair than gray in the pews. All three of Crippen's sisters are also accomplished swimmers. Many of the mourners wore orange ribbons - orange is a U.Va. color - with Crippen's initials on them.

Bernardino said Crippen befriended his family soon after he came to college.

"He didn't know how to knock or ring a doorbell," the coach said to knowing laughter. Crippen would walk in and say "Yo. Anybody home?" or "What's up everybody."

Crippen loved his sisters, but he treated Bernardino's young sons as the younger brothers he'd never had, beating them at everything and teaching them to swear.

"Fran, your initials will be on their shoes, wrist bands and arm bands in every game they ever play," Bernardino said, "and they'll play for you Fran."

Crippen's girlfriend, Caitlin Regan of Philadelphia, said she asked Crippen, who had traveled widely, what his favorite city was before he left for the world championship 10K race in Rome last year.

"Have you ever heard of a little place called Conshohocken?" he asked.

"I laughed then, but I realized he was absolutely serious," she said.

She described Crippen as competitive, but fun loving. "He and I would settle any argument with a quick game of rock, paper scissors," she said.

He was passionate and had a contagious laugh, she said. He could talk to anybody, but, more importantly, he listened.

She shared his favorite saying. "You know what my mom always tells me," she said he'd say, "'Don't just be a gentleman, but a gentle man.'"

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or