Tackling the English Channel for ALS
by Laura S. Jones
On a relay, you are a part of a team. When you contribute money toward finding a cure for a disease, you are also part of a team. The difference is that a relay swim has a finish line you can reach in a day or so. With ALS research, the finish line is far away.
Bethany Williston, 40 and a member of Great Lakes State Masters, is part of both types of teams, as are her fellow relay swimmers. They are planning a double relay crossing of the English Channel to raise money for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after its most famous victim.
The other five team members are: Amanda Mercer, 43, also a member of Great Lakes State Masters, is on the Board of Ann Arbor Active Against ALS and came up with the idea; Jenny Sutton Jalet, 40, Emily Kreger, 34, and Melissa Karjala, 32, who are members of Michigan Masters, and Susan Butcher.
These women want to do the double crossing with flair and break the current world record for the fastest all female relay double crossing. According to the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation’s website, the record is 18 hours, 59 minutes, set in 2007 by a Mexican team.
This journey started because a friend and recreational swimmer, Bob Schoeni, found that while swimming on vacation “he couldn’t make his fingers do what he wanted them to do.” The irony is that “if someone weren’t athletic, maybe they wouldn’t notice the symptoms as early,” says Williston. A patient with ALS experiences a degeneration of nerve cells, leading to gradual weakness and wasting of the muscles. Life expectancy after diagnosis averages two to five years.
A triathlete for 10 years and former middle distance swimmer in college, Williston says she had to ratchet up her swimming when she decided to be a part of this relay. She now swims four times a week, also serving as a Masters coach for her workout group, Ann Arbor Masters. “Amanda and I swim together regularly, and most of the other women [on the relay] know each other through Masters.”
Williston knows setting the record will be a challenge and that conditions could wreck that part of their goal. But “if it is a nice calm day, we probably have a shot.” Not that she is overly confident. She and the others know the double crossing will be difficult no matter what, and they have been training hard for the last year and a half. Williston and her teammates did a lot of open water swimming and racing over the summer and kept working out in local lakes until the end of October. Their training has shifted to speed and strength work over the winter. “We know we can swim for an hour. Now we have to work on swimming fast for an hour,” she explains.
When asked whether the training, the logistics or the fundraising is the hardest part of this adventure, Williston chooses fundraising, without hesitation. Most of the women were college swimmers (Karjala played water polo) and “we’ve all trained hard and made our bodies hurt.” But fundraising is new, she says, and has required a lot of energy and time and creative thinking. One of the team’s creations is a virtual swim, which allows interested swimmers or runners to complete the English Channel virtually and receive recognition and prizes from the team. A friend also created a puzzle app for smartphones, which is available on their website, channelforals.org.
As for logistics, two years out there was one week available: July 25-31, 2012. They were lucky to get the experienced Mike Oram as their captain, increasing their chances for a fast crossing. There still is a lot to plan for, but Williston figures the best plan is to be mentally prepared for chaos. “I figure it is like childbirth. You can do all the planning you want and then it is nothing like you thought it was going to be,” Williston says, laughing.