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by Michael McDonnell

December 31, 2008

A beginner's perspective

When it comes to cancer, everyone has a story. It doesn't matter whether they've been directly affected by cancer themselves, a friend or family member has been afflicted, or even a mere acquaintance. Everyone has a story. On Saturday July 17th, 2010 at the Ohio Street beach, everyone's story got a little better known, a little louder, a little braver and a lot more hopeful.

My story begins with my grandfather dying of esophageal cancer before I could even remember who he was. I've only known him from pictures. He lost his battle with cancer when I was less than a year old. My other grandfather battled with and survived Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma after a long seven-year battle. He wouldn't have survived that long without advances in cancer research.

So in March, when I was approached to swim in Swim Across America, a mere two months after I had started to swim competitively, I jumped at the chance. I signed up for the mile and immediately started fundraising. The very idea of the event was an exciting opportunity to expand upon my love for swimming while becoming a part of something larger than myself.

On July 17th, 2010, 6 a.m. came far too quickly. The months and weeks leading up had flown by and suddenly I was on the precipice of swimming a mile in open water in a cold lake. “What was I thinking?” had crossed my mind more than once. Walking up from the Navy Pier garage though, I could see several people already there talking to each other excitedly while watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan. After helping the others set up for the day, I took a quick walk out into the water just to check. It was colder than I had expected. I was definitely getting a wetsuit.

After helping set up the refreshments tent and stuffing the goody bags, it was time to sign up and get ready to swim. I rented the wetsuit and decided to hop in the water to see what it was like. I've never felt so buoyant in my life! Even in the cold water, the suit was very good at keeping my body warm, which helped make my motion in the water much easier.

At 8:00 a.m., the first swim for the Swim Across America started. The three milers started into a cold, waveless, albeit beautiful, 66-degree Lake Michigan. At first, the swimmers were just a collection of waves and bobbing pink swim caps, but quickly began to disappear into little specks in the far reaches of the harbor. Joining the three milers was Olympic swimmer and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, David Sims. Following shortly behind the three milers were the one and a half milers, including Olympian Craig Oppel and former U.S. Pan American team member Megan Oesting.

The mile and half-mile swimmers had a slightly different route than the three and one and a half mile swimmers. Swimming up and down the pier along the lakefront one gets a repeated view of the Hancock Building to the west and a blinding view of the sun to the east.

Coming out of the water, swimmers were greeted by more volunteers who directed them to the check-in point, so the event coordinators could confirm everyone got out of the water safely. A free towel was given out so you could dry off. However, in the 90-degree heat that day, it wasn’t really needed by anyone for anything other than sunblock.

After all of the swimmers had checked back in from the water, everyone who volunteered or swam was invited to come up for a catered picnic in the shade in Milton Olive Park. More stories began to come out. One gentleman who had raised the second highest amount of money had himself survived five bouts with cancer. One of the women who volunteered and swam was swimming for her boyfriend who was undergoing treatment for an eye cancer. One of the swimmers whom I knew personally was swimming for his wife who had been undergoing brain cancer treatments. On such an emotionally charged day, the Chicagoland area had something even more to be proud about; from the 182 swimmers, who swam a collective 298.5 miles on that very warm Saturday morning, $130,000 was raised for cancer research.

Bigger hopes and dreams were created that morning, as the giant check was handed off.  A lot of promising research is being shown to help us find cures. Inspiration was not hard to come by as watching men, women, boys and girls of all shapes, sizes and abilities ran to the water for this event. The contributions by all of the supporters and volunteers were so impressive that I couldn't help but feel a little pride in the accomplishments we all worked for that day.