Breast cancer had no effect on Emily Marsh-Fleming’s breaststroke.
Regardless of her diagnosis, the 38-year-old kept on swimming along with about 50 other participants at the first “Sync Cancer” swim-a-thon Saturday, hosted and sponsored by Ohio State’s synchronized swimming team at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion.
More than $5,000 was raised through swimmer registration and donations, head coach Holly Vargo-Brown said, and the proceeds benefited Pelotonia’s Team Buckeye in honor of Marsh-Fleming, a Buckeye alumna who swam on OSU’s synchronized swimming team from 1994 to 1997 and was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2009 when she was six months pregnant.
The idea for the event, Marsh-Fleming explained, stemmed from her involvement and passion for Pelotonia, an annual three-day cycling event that raises millions of dollars for cancer research at the Wexner Medical Center James Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2012, she completed the 100-mile leg of the race and aspired to get OSU’s synchronized swimming team involved.
“The reality is, (cancer) is something that, especially for the girls on the team, is entering their lives now if it hasn’t already,” Marsh-Fleming said. “This is the age where Grandma Sue is diagnosed or a roommate’s father. The word ‘cancer’ is really starting to mean something for people, I think, especially when they are in college.”
Instead of the team participating in the bike race, Vargo-Brown said, “Why don’t we just do what we know how to do and swim?” With the help of Team Buckeye, the official OSU Pelotonia team, “Sync Cancer” came into fruition and was the first Pelotonia event to raise funds in water rather than land, according to Karl Koon, a development officer for the James.
The goal of “Sync Cancer” was to register 100 participants, at $25 each, to swim one mile, which equaled 72 lengths of McCorkle’s two 25-yard pools. Swimmers could either swim the mile solo or share the mile with a team as laps were counted by volunteers.
“Emily was going for the 100-mile (Pelotonia race), and we just thought that was a cool connection. We can’t swim a hundred miles, but we can get a hundred people to swim 1 mile and do our hundred miles that way,” Vargo-Brown said.
Although “Sync Cancer” only reached a little more than half its swimmer capacity goal, the event doubled its financial goal, which was $2,500, to be donated to Team Buckeye.
Marsh-Fleming was inducted into the OSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003 and into the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame during Saturday’s event. The event also honored past members of OSU’s synchronized swimming who have been affected by the disease.
“Our synchronized swimming (team) has had all kinds of success, all kinds of national championships, but we have two girls (Marsh-Fleming and former member Meghan Kinney) who have cancer, a coach that had cancer, and in 2005, we had a girl that just didn’t wake up one morning. That was Jessica Beck, and we have a memorial meet for her each year,” said former head coach Linda Lichter-Witter, who is a survivor of cervical cancer and was Marsh-Fleming’s coach when she swam for the Buckeyes.
Although cancer is “definitely on the forefront” of the team’s mind, Marsh-Fleming said, it has brought the team, past and present, closer together.
“I talked about how it’s a great honor to me that the team is committed to cancer research, but yeah, it’s affecting the Buckeye synchro family in more than one way. So it happened, we can’t change the past, but we can impact the future. So I think (“Sync Cancer” is) a great way, a very effective way to do that,” Marsh-Fleming said.
Participants at “Sync Cancer” also swam to honor family members and friends touched by cancer.
Justin Tenchavez, a first-year in kinesiology, originally decided to swim at the event Saturday to help fundraise for cancer. A week following his registration, though, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, giving him an “extra push” to participate.
“Swimming symbolizes another escape, it’s like an escape from reality. But today, it gives me the opportunity to help fundraise for a greater cause,” Tenchavez said.
Tanya Knauss, a Gahanna resident, swam Saturday for her husband, who passed away from cancer in March, and her friend, who is battling cancer.
“(Swimming) is kind of revisiting a familiar place. It’s kind of like going home again,” Knauss said. “My husband and I actually met swimming on a college swim team, and it’s nice I can do that in a different phase of life.”
Knauss said she and her husband swam for the College of Wooster.
Although Marsh-Fleming said she believes she will not have the opportunity to see cancer eradicated in her body, she loves “the idea that Pelotonia can easily raise so much money and so fast so that at least the next generation, when they get this diagnosis, there is hope for a normal, full life.”
So, along with Tenchavez, Knauss, Lichter-Witter and the OSU synchronized swimming team, Marsh-Fleming took on the mile in her own swimming lane, labeled with a pink sign and ribbon.
Lichter-Witter said she’s pulling for Marsh-Fleming to beat her cancer.
“I’m 64 years old, (Marsh-Fleming) has a young child. It’s just hard to not want her to be the one that succeeds at (defeating cancer),” Lichter-Witter said. “(The team) will talk to Emily a lot and tell her she is a warrior. She’s not your average athlete. She has a tremendous desire to be successful at what she wants to be, and if anyone could be a survivor, it would be Emily.”