September / October 2008 Issue

Thank You, Swim Across America

by Susan Helmrich

The alarm went off at 5:55 AM on Sunday morning, September 30th. It was dark and all I could think of was, “I must be out of my mind”. One week earlier I had decided to participate in the Swim Across America 10 Mile SF Bay Relay Swim, a fundraiser for the UCSF Survivorship Clinic which provides long-term follow-up assessment and care to survivors of childhood cancer. Two weeks earlier, on September 16th, I had done my first SF Bay swim, a race actually. We swam (and I say we because David and Aly did it also, only they did not wear wetsuits!) from Angel Island (in the Bay) to Tiburon (a little town in Marin). This race was one nautical mile and fairly easy, not too intimidating, and was a fundraiser for Special Olympics. So, the next Sunday I registered for the Swim Across America event. Something I had wanted to do for over a year but was a little bit of a chicken about it. This event felt much different from the Tiburon Mile. This swim was in the middle of the Bay (sharks, currents, dark, cold water!?), covering a total of 10 miles, swum as a relay off of a boat. I just wasn’t so sure about it. Actually, I was terrified every time I thought about it. But, it was a fundraiser for cancer research. This event combined my 2 lives – swimming, and unfortunately, cancer. It had my name on it. I had to do it. So, I went to the website, and signed up. The only catch was participants had to raise $1000. “How on earth could I raise $1000 in a week?”, I thought to myself. So, I donated the first $100 and thought, if 90 people give me $10 – I’m there! Well, within 48 hours I had raised the $900, and by the end of the week I was close to $3000!! The outpouring of support and generosity was completely overwhelming. Now, as it got closer to the day of the swim, I knew there was no turning back. Way too many people were behind me, and I wasn’t going to let them down. (Those of you receiving this email!)

So, back to Sunday morning. Richard and I packed the car with my gear – wetsuit, thermal cap, goggles, earplugs (to keep out the cold water), towels, layers of warm clothes, fleece blankets, hats, and gloves. We were expecting to be on a tugboat or barge or something battling the wind and cold in the middle of the Bay. Boy, were we wrong! We arrived at Pier 9, checked in, met a few people, drank some coffee and boarded the San Francisco Spirit – a large, beautiful boat with cushioned seats all around, and a spread of food including coffee cake, fruit, cereal, sandwiches and drinks. We were given some instructions by the Executive Director of Swim Across America, Janel Jorgenson, a member of the 1988 Olympic team, and an amazing woman. The boat captain talked to us about the current (the ebb and the flood!), and the course that we would swim. At a few minutes before 8:00 AM, the first team of the relay, made up of 4 cancer survivors all wearing blue caps, including myself, and 4 former Olympians got ready to go. Some of us had struggled earlier to put on our wetsuits, others did not!! I did! We were now just in front of Alcatraz!! At 8:00, we gathered at the lower level of the boat, posed for some photos and were told to go. No one wanted to be first, so I volunteered. I figured there was only way to do it – just jump. That was so scary. We were about 6 feet from the water and it looked so high. That first jump was terrifying. When I hit the water it felt so cold at first I could barely breathe, but after a minute or so, I felt fine. “I can do this”, I thought. We swam in a pack as best we could. The Olympians were out in front and the survivors, surviving behind them. I felt OK and kept up a good pace for about 20 minutes. All sense of time, distance, and space was suspended. When we were told to stop I felt as if I could have been swimming for 5 minutes or 1 hour. It was so hard to tell. After our group swam, groups #2-#5 swam in 20-minute intervals after us. One hour and 20 minutes after I came in from the first swim, my group was ready to go AGAIN! This time, our leg of the relay would swim directly under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was truly amazing, awesome, breathtaking, magnificent and awe-inspiring as you can see from the photos that Richard took. The day was glorious, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the moon was still out and I was swimming underneath the Golden Gate Bridge! I absolutely could not believe it. As I swam, I thought about all the people I know (and knew) who have had cancer and who are currently battling cancer. My list is much too long and included everyone from my mom (a 40-year survivor) to my friend’s daughter who was just diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. I just know too many people who have suffered, and they were all in my thoughts, which, I think was the point of the swim. I did something so hard and so challenging, but not nearly as difficult as going through treatment for cancer. As the organizers of Swim Across America say on their website, “Rarely will you ever find someone who has not been touched personally by the disease of cancer.” In addition, “three out of every four American families will have at least one family member diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime”.

The rest of the day, there were more life-altering and life-affirming activities. At one point during the day, people on the boat stood up and told why they were there–swimming in the Bay to raise money for cancer research. As you can imagine, everyone had a story. I told mine, and many people told me how inspiring it was. But the entire day, for me, was inspirational on so many levels. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could do what I did. Thirty years after my treatment for vaginal cancer and almost 9 years after having a lobe of my lung removed. I was inspired…by the doctor who runs the Survivorship Clinic at UCSF, by the kids who had survived cancer who were treated in the Clinic and the parents of the kids who had cancer (who were at the awards ceremony), by one of my fellow swimmers who had cancer at age 12 and was now training for the 2008 Olympics, and by my husband who was with me every stroke of the way watching from the boat (and helping me get in and out of my wetsuit). I wish you all could have been there, and in some way you were by your generous donation to such a worthy cause. Please know how much I appreciate it. In total, I’ve raise close to $4,000, and the SF Bay Swim Across America event raised almost $130,000 from just 65 swimmers. As you can see from the photos, it was an incredible day. I’m praying for sunshine next year, because I can’t wait to do it again.