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Ann Arbor Women to Swim the Channel for a Cure

by Lisa Diggs

An Olympic flag adorns the wall of U of M’s Canham Natatorium, and beneath it an electronic clock counts its way down to the Summer Games in London. Typically it’s meant to motivate swimmers who aim to represent their nation on the medal stand. After all, this pool has provided a training ground for the likes of Peter Vanderkaay and Michael Phelps. This year, though, the clock is also ticking closer to a lifetime dream for six seemingly ordinary women from Ann Arbor.

Amanda Mercer, Susan Butcher, Bethany Williston, Emily Kreger, Melissa Karjala, and Jenny Sutton Jalet are also heading across the pond in July 2012 for an athletic feat that they really hope will make waves.  The sextet, known as the A2A3 Relay Team, is chasing a world record, but more importantly, a world cure for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known to most of us as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  They are embarking on an epic quest to swim the English Channel in order to raise awareness and funds to fight the brutal disease.

The project is the brainchild of Amanda Mercer, an attorney and board member of Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, a grassroots, nonprofit organization founded by a group of friends and colleagues of U of M professors, Bob Schoeni and Gretchen Spreitzer following Bob's ALS diagnosis in July 2008.

For those of you who are less familiar with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it’s a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.  Normally motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout our bodies. With this disease, as motor neurons die, the brain can no longer control muscles or signal them to move.  The body becomes paralyzed while the mind remains unaffected, often leaving an active person trapped in a body that no longer works. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons eventually leads to death.

Imagine being an active, athletic person one day, and then having your body just quit doing what you’re telling it to do!  Says Mercer, “You might think I’m doing this because of my neighbor, Bob, but I’m not. Of course, I care about Bob, but I’m doing this because I’m angry. I’m angry at the disease. I’m angry at what it does, and I’m angry that so little is done to treat or prevent it.”

ALS is what is known as an “Orphan Disease,” a term used to describe afflictions that the pharmaceutical companies don’t typically adopt because it provides little financial incentive for the private sector to make and market new medications to treat or prevent it. Quite simply in their eyes, there aren’t enough people alive at one time with this disease to warrant trying to discover effective treatments, let alone a cure.

In an ultimate act of defiance, these six dedicated women are pushing their bodies to the limit on behalf of nearly 30,000 Americans who no longer can.

Just how hard will they have to push their bodies? These former collegiate swimmers will be pursuing the current world record for an all-female 6-person relay of 18 hours 59 minutes.  They must choose an order in which to swim, and once chosen, must stick to that order.  The Channel is 18.2 nautical miles which is approximately 21 land miles, and they will need to cross it both ways, which means each member will swim for an hour at a time, and will have to complete at least three swims, sometimes in the dark.  All of this in water that is typically between 59°F and 64.5°F, and wetsuits are not permitted.  

While fortunately these are not shark-infested waters, they are home to jellyfish, debris, and shipping vessels, that all present dangers.  To prepare, they've had to swim five to ten hours a week and do additional conditioning when they aren’t in the pool.  As spring hits they will start spending time in Michigan lakes to acclimate their bodies to the temperature.  Each must get cold water certified to be allowed to make the swim.  It's a lot to put oneself through, especially since many are moms and/or working full-time.  According to Butcher, "It's almost every swimmer's dream to swim the English Channel, but it takes a lot, so at this point in our lives it needed to be about something more than just that." 

The timing of the attempt is actually coincidental. In order to make a swim across the Channel, teams need to secure the services of an experienced boat captain, and the captain they wanted, happened to be available at the same time as the Olympics. Mostly it just raises their personal travel costs, which they are each paying out-of-pocket, but it also gives us all something extra and exciting to root for during the Summer Games.

Their goal isn’t to win a medal, but to raise $120,000 to help win the battle against ALS.  They need our help to make that happen.  School groups, teams, scouts, clubs, co-workers, and individuals can virtually train alongside them by doing a Virtual Crossing.  Keep track of your own progress as you get in swimsuit shape by being part of the team, or just DONATE.  For more details and to follow A2A3 Relay Team's progress visit www.ChannelforALS.org.

 


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