Michigan Swimmers Using English Channel Record Attempt to Raise Money for ALS Cure

The A2A3 swimmers, from left: Melissa Karjala, Jenny Sutton Jalet, Bethany Williston, Amanda Mercer, Emily Kreger and Susan Butcher. | Photo by Suzanne Hiyama Ross

How’s this for wedding an ambitious feat of physical endurance to a greater humanitarian cause: Six Michigan women are training to break the world record for fastest two-way relay swim crossing of the English Channel to raise money to find a cure for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The women, all active, masters-age swimmers who swam or played water polo competitively in college, are using their English Channel swim to benefit Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, a nonprofit that sponsors a number of races and other events to raise money for ALS research and promote physical activity. They’re trying to raise $120,000 to raise awareness of the disease and find a cure.

The channel swimmers plan to launch their assault on the record books sometime between July 25 and 31, during the Neap tide (and the nearby London 2012 Olympics) and depending on weather and currents. The world record, set in 2007 by a group of women from Mexico, is 18 hours and 59 minutes.

“It’s something that I think most swimmers think about. It’s sort of the Mount Everest of swimming, swimming the English Channel,” said Amanda Mercer, an attorney who swam competitively for Michigan State University and came up with the idea.

The distance from Dover, England to Cap Gris Nez, France is 18.2 nautical miles, or about 21 miles on land. They’ll be swimming that distance twice.

“We’re finding a lot of our friends who are open-water swimmers think we’re crazy for doing it, I think because it’s cold,” Mercer said.

And cold it is. The water in the English Channel averages between 59 and 64.5 degrees Fahrenheit. And per official Channel-swimming federation rules, those who attempt crossing records must do so sans wetsuit. (“A wetsuit makes you more buoyant and it also makes you faster… it lessens the challenge of the swim,” Mercer says.)

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Over time, the nerve cells wither or die, leading to muscle weakening, twitching and eventual paralysis.

How to Help

  • The swimmers are soliciting donations through Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, a nonprofit that funds research into cures for the disease.
  • They are also offering a Virtual Crossing option for swimming or running the equivalent distance.
  • Five Lakes Studios, based in New Hudson, has created an iPhone and iPad app called Kento for ALS, with all proceeds going to A2A3.

ChannelForALS.org

The disease is usually fatal, and there is neither a treatment nor a cure.

Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, or A2A3, formed in 2008 by friends and colleagues of Bob Schoeni, a University of Michigan professor and youth athletics coach who was diagnosed with ALS. Mercer, who is neighbors with him, said Schoeni still talks clearly and regularly walks his dog. “He’s doing very well,” she says.

The demands of training for the crossing are intense and time-consuming.

The women, who all live in Ann Arbor except for Emily Kreger, a Detroit Medical Center surgical resident who lives in Grosse Pointe, have taken to indoor pools during the winter. Through October, they swam at Silver Lake near Dexter to acclimate their bodies to the cold. Once spring rolls around and the ice thaws, they plan to train in Lake Huron, where they’ll do their 2-hour certification swim to prove they can handle cold water.

Since all of them work, and three of them are mothers, finding the time is a challenge.

“Right now I’m trying to be in the water four to five days a week, and that’ll range from an hour, hour and a half workout. And that’s right now,” Mercer says. “That’ll start to increase to six days a week and longer workouts. And everyone supports it with cross-training workouts… Some of us are doing P90X.”

Are they optimistic about breaking the record?

“It’s really dependent on the conditions,” Mercer says. “If we’re going to be swimming in 3- and 5-foot swells, it’s probably unlikely that we can do it. But if we have good conditions, I think we can do it.”

Check out a video interview the Detroit Free Press did with Mercer below.

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