Eclipsed- Local attorney captains swim team that smashes English Channel mark

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

A little after midnight on July 28, an exhausted swimmer approached Shakespeare 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)--aka 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 break wall on the beach, all Kreger could see was darkness ahead.

"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, a University of Michigan professor 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 four friends who had also been varsity swimmers, and Karjala who had played water polo for the University of Michigan.

The women trained rigorously in local swimming pools, lakes and the Great Lakes in the months leading up to their trip to England. 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."

At 8 p.m. 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 from the marina--"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 (equivalent to about 23.6 land miles) to the French coast.

"Emily stood on the beach all by herself for what seemed like forever, because she was freezing, and then they finally blew the horn and that started us," Mercer says.

All the women wore Scopolamine patches to fend off motion sickness.

"We thought we were going to be OK with seasickness, and I felt OK for the first five hours," Mercer says. "But Jenny was miserable right away, and when she wasn't swimming, she was curled up in a fetal position in the back of the boat, wrapped up in foul weather gear."

Each swimmer spent an hour in the water; Mercer was the last in the relay, after five hours on the boat.

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 Williston reached the French coast, she scrambled over boulders and past the waterline, where she stood on rocks, raising her arms in triumph to the sound of the boat's horn. Then she quickly got back in the ocean, despite stumbling on slippery rocks and getting scraped.

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, slowing them down. Nevertheless, the women continued to make steady progress.

After Mercer's second hour in the water, 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.

She also got stung by a jellyfish, although the cold water eased the pain.

"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.

With her teammates, yelling, "Go, go, go," Mercer got ready to plunge in for a third time.

"I kind of stood there, hyperventilating, but 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 with ALS. And I knew my husband was waiting for me at the beach, I hadn't seen him for a week."

After Mercer's hour, Kreger took over for the final swim to Shakespeare Beach and a new world record.

Back on dry land, the women enjoyed their time in England. Mercer was unable to get tickets to Olympics events, but she and her husband Todd enjoyed seeing Buckingham Palace and other London sights, and spent four days in the West Country, visiting the historic cities of Bath and Bristol, and picturesque villages in the Cotswolds hills.

"We loved it over there," Mercer says.

Is there another swim in the future?

"Never the English Channel again," Mercer says with a smile. "But we became quite a little family and I know we all want to stay together as much as possible so I'm sure we'll plan other swims in the future - but probably more for vacation and fun."

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

Although the cross-Channel swim is over, the women invite people to take part in a "Virtual Crossing" by swimming, walking or running in support of this effort, or giving donations--close to $90,000 has been raised with an eventual goal of $120,000. For information, visit www.a2a3.org.

Published: Thu, Aug 23, 2012

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