Aug. 20, 2012
University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page, mgoblue.com/brandon, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.
When the women's world relay record for swimming the English Channel -- both ways -- was set a few hours after the 2012 London Summer Olympics opening ceremony, there were few fans and no medals to be distributed.
With the Summer Games just getting started, six tired, cold and strong-willed women were returning to England shortly before 12:30 a.m. on July 28 after completing a challenge for charity by swimming 42 miles in the English Channel in 18 hours, 55 minutes to edge the previous mark of 18:59.
It was an impressive effort for an impressive cause, and two of those who took on this challenge were former Michigan student-athletes. Jenny Sutton Jalet, who swam for the Wolverines, and Melissa Karjala, a captain of U-M's first varsity water polo team, were two of the six swimmers on the relay team that took on this effort to raise money and awareness for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
While a third of this team was made up of former Wolverines, it was a former captain of the Michigan State swim team, Amanda Mercer, who brought these women together to help raise awareness for the disease on behalf of her friend and neighbor Bob Schoeni, a University of Michigan professor of economics and public policy.
The goal was to raise awareness for ALS, but the swim wasn't going to be considered a complete success unless they broke the world set by a Mexican team in 2007. After all, the team members were all competitive athletes; in addition to Jalet, Karjala and Mercer, Susan Butcher swam at Eastern Michigan, while Emily Kreger and Bethany Williston competed at Yale.
Swimming the Channel is not a decision that can be made quickly. The team had to file paperwork two years earlier with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, the governing body of English Channel swimming. Then this group of former student-athletes who are now in their 30s and early 40s committed themselves to prepare physically and mentally for the upcoming challenge.
Even though all competed in the pool, open water training in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and trips to the Atlantic Ocean helped acclimate the team to what laid ahead. However, even those efforts didn't prepare them totally for the battles with the current, sea sickness, potential jellyfish stings, and the cold that awaited the group.
The team started the swim at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27. Each member had to swim one hour while the rest of the team waited in an escort boat manned with lifeguards that shadowed the swimmers through the entire challenge.
Eventually they arrived at the French coastline of Cape Griz-Nez. Williston went on shore only to turn back around and start the return journey to England.
Jalet, who also works with our athletics department development team as premium seating and transportation team director, was the first of the team that had to swim at night. With a glow strip attached to her swim cap and on the back of her swimsuit, she jumped into the water wondering what was in in store for her in the dark.
Even though her only and longest night swim of her life was for 30 minutes at Silver Lake outside of Ann Arbor, she found the light of the boat and the encouragement from her teammates enough to make the swim tolerable. In fact, she felt a sense of awe, swimming in the dark, vast waters with only the lights of the escort boat and a single cruise ship in the distance.
Battling exhaustion and tiring at the end of the challenge, Kreger was the last swimmer. With the minutes ticking away, she had trouble finding the final landing spot on Shakespeare Beach in Dover, England.
With her teammates texting the onlookers on shore to light the final stop with the lights from their cell phones, Kreger made it to shore, walked up the beach and made the relay official, setting the new world record by a mere four minutes!
Of course, it wasn't over for Kreger. She still had to walk back into the water and swim back to the boat so the team could be taken back to the dock, where they could finally all stand on solid ground and look back on the sea to reflect on their accomplishment.
It was a special moment for every one of the team members, but for the former Spartan swim captain this was truly an outstanding accomplishment. Not only did she pull this team of U-M, EMU and Yale swimmers together to help awareness for ALS, Mercer had to battle through her own fight with a deadly disease.
In March, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This 44-year-old wife and mother of two underwent difficult chemotherapy treatments. Somehow she fought through the pain and problems to help lead this team to England and the world record.
I doubt anyone on the team would look back on this experience and say this was fun. But I do know everyone will look back at the English Channel relay record and say it was rewarding.
The team has raised almost $90,000 to help battle Lou Gehrig's disease. If you would like to contribute, go to www.channelforals.org for more information.
Congratulations to all six of these women for setting the world record and to help all of us become more aware of ALS.