Swimming for a cause

Is Grete Wilt nervous about her upcoming relay swim across the English Channel?

A little.

Ask the 15-year-old Southwest High School student and her teammates about the hazards of the crossing and they eagerly list them. There's seaweed (more gross than dangerous, really), jellyfish, boat traffic in the shipping lanes and, potentially, slicks of raw sewage floating in the frigid waters between England and France.

Still, the eight teenage members of the YWCA Minneapolis Otters swim team are taking on that challenge for a reason: Funds raised for their crossing in July will support swimming instruction for children of color, who, research shows, are much more likely to drown than their white counterparts.

&#8220Is raw sewage going to stop me from this important cause?” Wilt asked. &#8220No. It's so much more important than that.”

Otters Coach Dave Cameron first pitched the idea of the fundraiser as a solo project.

&#8220I did a channel in 2004,” Cameron said. &#8220I was planning a double-crossing on my own.”

But when he brought the idea to the YWCA, they asked him to get more people involved. In October, he started recruiting Otters for a relay swim.

As their regular swimming season wound down in March, the Otters on the relay team ramped up their training.

Cameron said most Otters trained two to three days per week, but the channel swimmers were practicing four or five days a week. Some were lifting weights on the side.

The teen swimmers - ages 13-16 - were also learning more about why they would swim.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported people of color were more than twice as likely to drown as whites in Hennepin County over the past five years. In the country as a whole, children of color drown at a rate 2.6 times greater than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sif Nave was, like her teammates, surprised by the racial disparities.

&#8220We're doing this swim to get the message out to other people,” the 16-year-old Southwest student said.

Nave and her teammates emphasized the physical and mental benefits of swimming. Not only is it great exercise, they said, it forces them to focus.

&#8220I think we can all say swimming calms us down,” said Nave's younger sister, Keelin.

Swimming also opens the door to other types of aquatic recreation, like boating and water skiing, Wilt added.

&#8220It's a great life skill,” she said.

All of the Otters had honed that skill from a young age. After years of practice and competition, they said the Channel swim would push them to the next level.

&#8220It's the next big mental and physical challenge,” Wilt said.

Their coach knew just how great a challenge that swim would be.

Cameron, who grew up in Ohio, said he began swimming competitively at age 10. He swam throughout high school, transitioning into long-distance events while a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

But his first experience with open-water swimming didn't come until after college, when he was training a group of triatheletes.

&#8220I liked it,” he said. &#8220It was a way I could do what I'd done forever and make it exciting again.

A few years later, Cameron dove into the water near Dover, England, and swam straight south to Cap Griz Nez, France. It took him just over 13 hours.

The double-crossing, planned for early August, could take almost 24 hours. Cameron would be only the 18th person to accomplish the feat.

Dover and Cap Griz Nez are about 20 miles apart, as the crow flies, but swimmers battle currents that push them off course and lengthen the crossing.

He said the water temperature was about 63 degrees for most of his 2004 swim, warming to near 65 degrees when he approached the French coastline.

&#8220The cold wasn't much of an issue until I stopped moving,” Cameron said. &#8220Afterwards, I went hypothermic.”

Hypothermia, it was hoped, will not be as great a danger for the youthful swimmers.

During the relay crossing, each will spend only an hour at a time in the water while the others will rest in a boat. They each will probably swim twice.

The first cold-water test for the Otters came in January, when Cameron lowered the temperature of the YWCA pool to about 62 degrees and had them swim for an hour. Some swimmers, like South High School student Mandy Theissen, 15, actually improved in the chilly temperatures.

&#8220It's so much easier to focus,” Theissen said.

In the spring, Cameron plans to take his swimmers out to area lakes to continue their cold training in open water.

He will also be pushing their endurance, aiming to get each swimmer up to a two-mile-an-hour pace.

&#8220I'd like to see them finish (the crossing) in 15, 16 hours,” he said.

Although months of training lay ahead, the Otters were already planning their strategy in March. Specifically, how loud they would cheer each other on during the swim.

&#8220I think the big thing is we are a team,” Wilt said. &#8220We're going to be here to support each other.

&#8220That's what's going to get us done with the challenge.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.