Swimmers take on English Channel for a cause

From left, Jenny Sutton Jalet, Bethany Williston, Amanda Mercer and Emily Kreger are four of the six women who plan to swim the English Channel for ALS awareness and research funding. Suzanne Hiyama Ross

Forget swimming. Amanda Mercer can't even get out of bed some days.

On these mornings, the ones after her chemotherapy, Mercer's living room appears to her like a gulf; just getting from one side to the other is a daunting, exhausting exercise.

But she knows her body. She knows she will feel better in three or four days. Not great, but good enough to get in the local pool and swim some miles. Good enough to believe she will be ready for July 26, when she and five teammates will swim the English Channel.

The sextet hopes to complete the two-way crossing (to France and back is 36.4 nautical miles) in less than 18 hours, 59 minutes, which is the world record for an all-female relay team of six. In the process, the women will be raising awareness and research funding (their goal is $120,000) for ALS -- commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Mercer, a graduate of Michigan State, sits on the board of Ann Arbor Active Against ALS, and one of her neighbors in Michigan has been diagnosed with the degenerative disease, for which there is no known cure.

Like her teammates, Mercer is a former college swimmer. For the Channel crossing, the six women will put themselves in a batting order just before launching their 35-foot boat, the Sea Satin, and they must adhere to that order without exception, each swimming for an hour at a time.

But right now, one day after her final chemo session on July 11, Mercer can't even keep her eyes open for an hour, let alone think about churning her body through murky, choppy, 59-degree water at record-breaking pace. This brutal fight against cancer isn't what she signed up for more than two years ago, when she and teammate Bethany Williston put the relay team together. Mercer figured she would have a healthy body, a clear mind. Life, though, is hardly ever as neat and tidy as we want: This past winter, after a particularly invigorating training swim, Mercer discovered a lump in her breast. Stage 2 cancer. On March 27, the 44-year-old wife and mother had the cancer surgically removed and immediately began a precautionary course of chemo.

Mercer's doctors discussed the swim with her, told her they didn't think she could do it. "That was like throwing down the gauntlet," she said. "I knew right then that I absolutely was going to do it."

At first, wading through the initial darkness created by the diagnosis, Mercer was crushed: Why now? But she quickly realized right now was the best time -- if there is such a thing -- for her to battle cancer. She had the motivation and distraction of a lifetime: a potential world-record swim on the horizon, with five strong and talented teammates for support. "When I'm in the water, I feel like me," Mercer said. "I'm normal, and all of the garbage goes away."

Mercer and Williston will be joined on the Sea Satin by Susan Butcher, Jenny Sutton Jalet, Melissa Karjala and Emily Kreger. All of them are former college swimmers who live in and around Ann Arbor. (Sutton Jalet and Karjala swam at Michigan, Butcher at Eastern Michigan, and Kreger and WiIliston at Yale.)

"Having teammates has been such a motivator," Butcher said. "It's kind of like, 'Do I really want to get up and swim today?' And if I don't want to, I have five other people who are counting on me. Or I can think of Amanda and how she still manages to get in the pool. I just think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if you do it, you want to do it to the best of your ability."

As Butcher notes, getting six busy women together to train on a regular basis has been nearly impossible. But even if only two or three of them can hit the pool at the same time, they've all stayed connected through email, texts and phone calls. And they will fly to London as a team Saturday, then attempt to do something faster than it's ever been done.

There are strict rules for the Channel crossing: no wet suits, and no contact between boat and swimmer -- except to pass food, water or safety equipment. So essentially, while in the water, each woman will be in her own world, absorbed in her own thoughts.

"For me, personally, this is an opportunity to do something I love," Mercer said. "I'm goal-oriented; all six women on our team are. And this is the ultimate goal, the Mount Everest for swimmers."

Of course, their journey is about so much more than swimming. It's about the stories accumulated along the way and the lessons passed along to kids who've been watching their mothers set a goal and work to achieve it -- no matter the obstacles in the path.

A few months ago, Sutton Jalet emailed Mercer to thank her for setting a strong example because now, when Sutton Jalet's two kids hear the word "cancer," they'll have a different picture in their minds: Oh, cancer … that's when you shave your head, take some medicine and swim the English Channel.

That email made Mercer cry.

There were more tears when Mercer's daughter, Dawsen, couldn't stand the sight of her mom's bald head. They were at Amanda's head-shaving party when suddenly Dawsen ran upstairs crying. Amanda followed and consoled her. The hair will come back. I'm still the same person. Dawsen's response? "Yeah, but you don't have to look at you all the time!"

That made Mercer laugh.

And, on July 26 -- tide willing -- there's a good chance Mercer and her five teammates will laugh and cry all over again.