Attorney captains record-smashing swim team

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by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A little after midnight on July 28, an exhausted swimmer approached the beach near Dover – the final stretch of a two-way crossing of the English Channel by a six-woman relay team raising funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Ann Arbor attorney Amanda Mercer and fellow mermaids Jenny Sutton Jalet, Melissa Karjala, Susan Butcher and Bethany Williston – all cold, wet, shivering and exhausted – cheered teammate Emily Kreger on to the finish.

But with a 30 to 40-foot breakwall, all Kreger could see was darkness.

“I was right above Emily, on the boat, and between strokes she was yelling, ‘I can’t see where I am, I can’t see where I’m going,’” Mercer says. “So I asked Jenny to text her husband on the beach, to tell everyone to light stuff up.”

With cell phones glowing and cameras flashing like mini beacons on the beach, Kreger swam to land – and to a new world record.

The grueling relay swim had taken 18 hours and 55 minutes – shaving four minutes off the previous world record set in 2007 by six women from Mexico.
“We were thrilled we were done, but we didn’t know right away if we’d broken the record,” Mercer says. “The pilots were calculating times below deck, and finally said, ‘18:55.’”

Mercer is a board member of Ann Arbor Active Against ALS (A2A3), a group that supports her friend and neighbor Bob Schoeni, diagnosed with ALS in 2008. A varsity swimmer in her undergrad days at Michigan State University, she came up with the fund-raising idea and rounded up five friends.

The women trained rigorously in local lakes, swimming pools, and the Great Lakes. The attempt almost got deep-sixed, when the weather, which had been perfect for the days leading up to the July 27 scheduled swim, took a turn for the worse.

“It was a tense couple of days, because we just didn’t know when we’d be able to go,” Mercer says. “We were having a hard time waiting, we just wanted to go.” On July 26, the women got the word the swim would take place the next day.

“Some of us didn’t sleep at all that night, or barely at all, just because we were so excited with anticipation,” says Mercer, who got about three hours shut-eye.
The swimming sextet – five from Ann Arbor and Kreger from Grosse Pointe – arrived at the marina at 4:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, for a 5:30 a.m. start. They met the crew and two observers who took copious notes throughout the swim as to what the women ate, drank, and any medications they took.

Three members of the Big 10 Network crew from MSU filmed the departure – “The video-cam guy was on the boat with us through the whole swim,” Mercer says. “And the two guys who stayed behind, and the 9-year-daughter of one of the guys, saw us off and wished us well.”

But no one was there to cheer them off from Shakespeare Beach, a long shingle beach below the white cliffs of Dover. Kreger jumped off the boat and swam to shore, ready to start the first leg of the 18.2 nautical mile swim (about 23.6 land miles).

“Emily stood on the beach all by herself for what seemed like forever ... and then they finally blew the horn and that started us,” Mercer says.

The women wore patches to fend off motion sickness.

Each swimmer spent an hour in the water; Mercer was the last in the relay, after five hours on the boat. “It was cold – for some reason it felt much colder than the swims we had done all the days leading up to it,” she says. “[A]fter that I started to slightly feel the seasickness. I couldn’t really eat much, then you get weak, and feeling bad because you haven’t eaten.”

The women made great time. “After the first few swimmers, the boat crew and observers were very excited, and said we could smash the record,” Mercer says.

When they reached the French coast, the team was about half an hour ahead of the time set by the Mexican team.

“We headed back in a great mood,” Mercer says. “The rain stopped and the sun came out and our pilot, Captain Lance Oram, said we would go back faster – he joked that it was downhill in that direction.”

And downhill it went – but in the other sense. King Neptune turned awkward, and the boat stopped catching the tides.

After Mercer’s second hour, fatigue and seasickness starting taking their toll. “I was absolutely miserable, so bad that I just didn’t know how I could get back in the water,” she says.

Hoping she wouldn’t have to do a third swim, Mercer was unhappy when the pilot said, “No darlin,’ you’re gonna have to swim for a full hour.”

“Getting back in that water was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – it was in the dark, the water had become more choppy, and I was just absolutely miserable,” she says. “But I didn’t want to let my teammates down, they’d given everything they had to give.”

Kreger, who is a physician, checked on Mercer. “She said, ‘You know it’s gonna be horrible, but then it will be done – that’s the tough love that I needed,” Mercer says.

“I finally jumped in – and it was horrible,” she says. “But I thought a lot about Bob, and that what I was doing for these 60 minutes was nothing compared to what he goes through every day... And I knew my husband was waiting for me at the beach.”

Back on dry land, the women enjoyed their time in England. Mercer  and her husband Todd enjoyed seeing Buckingham Palace and other London sights, and spent four days in the West Country, visiting the historic cities and villages.

Mercer, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago and had her last chemo session on July 11, started radiation on Aug. 20. A Wayne Law grad, previously an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Washtenaw County and Enforcement Representative for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, she is taking a break from her solo practice until her children start back to school and her radiation treatments are over.

The women invite people to take part in a “Virtual Crossing” in support, or give donations – close to $90,000 has been raised with a goal of $120,000. For information, visit www.a2a3.org.

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