The Mermaids take the waters at annual cancer swim
on October 5, 2009
The Women’s Cancer Resource Center, an Oakland-based support center for women with cancer, held its fourteenth annual Swim a Mile for Women with Cancer event on October 3rd and 4th at the Mills College pool in East Oakland. Swimmers of various skill sets – from those who walked their laps in the shallow end to those who wore their brightly colored swim caps and Speedos in the deep end – grouped in threes or fours to share lanes and swim their miles together. High school students sat in white chairs at the head of each lane to count swimmers’ laps and cheer loudly for each participant.
Approximately 600 swimmers raised $255,000 for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center over the weekend. The center hopes to reach its fund-raising goal of $285,000 by the time they finish collecting pledges in January. Money raised will allow the center to continue providing free services like in-home support, referral resources, and cancer and wellness workshops to Bay Area women with cancer. “We’re an organization committed to community and empowerment for all women with cancer with a target for women with color, especially Latina and African-American women,” executive director Peggy McGuire said.
The Women’s Cancer Resource Center’s seven-person staff, along with some 85 volunteers, have been a part of the Oakland community since 1986. “We train women as community health advocates to go to the communities where they live, work, worship, and raise their children to bring forward the importance of early detection and screening,” McGuire said. “We also provide navigation and support. No woman has to go through a cancer diagnosis alone.”
Cancer survivor Marty Heinrich of Fremont participated in her eighth annual swim with her well-known posse, Marty’s Mermaids, a group of friends who have banded with her through the years to raise money for the center. Marty wore a modest turquoise swimsuit and navy shorts in the pool and chose not to wear a cap over her short blond hair.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2001, so post surgery I decided that I needed to do some things to celebrate being a survivor of cancer and also give back for all the things that were given to me along the way,” Heinrich said.
She turned to triathlons and bicycle events before she found the WCRC swim-a-thon and found she loved celebrating her survivor status by participating in a big “pool party.” “What I love about swimming this event is that it’s an organization that is grassroots,” Heinrich said. “They provide service support for families. They aren’t a cause for a cure.”
Her cycling friends agreed that swimming sounded like a great idea and joined her. One of her friend’s young daughters wanted to jazz the group up a little. “She wanted to be Ariel from The Mermaids [The Little Mermaid], so that’s how we got the Mermaids, and then it became Marty’s Mermaids,” Heinrich said. The Merskirts were created in various shades of green and the group donned long red wigs and adopted fish names—Heinrich is also known as “Sharkbait”—to complete that swim and several thereafter.
Three of the original Mermaids and two new recruits, joined Heinrich for the swim on Saturday. While the group didn’t wear their skirts in the pool this year, they did bring them, where they adorned a special “Marty’s Mermaids” corner in the swimming complex. What they did do was wear homemade cotton T-shirts in various colors with the words “Marty’s Mermaids” ironed over their chests; they also brought a poster that included over one hundred names of people they were swimming in whose memory or honor they were swimming.
They also brought a memorial poster including over a hundred names of people they were swimming for.
A special tradition Heinrich and the other Mermaids started during their first swim was writing the names of people they are swimming for in Sharpie on their skin. “It’s one of the things we do for our sponsors,” Heinrich said. “And also, really, it brings home how grateful we are to do the swim and to bring those people along with us.”
This year, Heinrich noted the group was having a unique problem. “I don’t think I have enough skin room for the 57 names I’ve collected this year,” she said, laughing.
In a bigger way, the Mermaids show their gratitude in the fund-raising they do for the WCRC. “I think personally I’ve raised well over $35,000 over the course of time that I’ve raised for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center,” Heinrich said. “Every year we raise on average between $10,000 and $15,000 as a team.”
While Heinrich did not find out about the WCRC until after she had her cancer surgery, she still considers the swim event her annual survivor celebration. “I looked down there [in the South Bay] at organizations to support and I didn’t see anything that matched the fun of this one,” she said. “I mean, when you swim and there are people cheering you on and you’re full of gratitude and you’re full of hope and just, what a fun day this is, how can you not come and do this event?”
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