Last Friday, six women in a relay swim team from Ann Arbor set a new world record of 18 hours and 55 minutes for double-crossing the English Channel, finishing four minutes faster than the previous record set in 2007 by another relay team of six women.
The team consisted of Amanda Mercer, Jenny Sutton Jalet, Melissa Karjala, Susan Butcher, Emily Kreger and Bethany Williston. Each woman swam on varsity teams at their respective universities during their undergraduate years except Karjala, who played water polo for the University from 1997 to 2001.
The women collaborated with Ann Arbor Active Against ALS in order to raise awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A2A3 was founded by friends and colleagues of Public Policy Prof. Bob Schoeni shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2008.
Amanda Mercer, the swim team’s captain and a board member of A2A3, came up with the idea of swimming across the English Channel for ALS, according to A2A3 President Suzanne Ross.
“When (Mercer) found out that there was a world record specifically for six women in a relay for double-crossing, she decided that’s what she wanted to do,” Ross said.
Ross said ALS is an orphan disease because pharmaceutical companies do not see it profitable to invest in finding a treatment or cure for ALS.
“We were shocked at the time when our main way of getting money was through private donations or government grants, not the pharmaceutical companies,” Ross said.
Ross said she concluded the best way to support Schoeni and his family was to raise funds specifically for ALS research.
The Channel for ALS campaign, a collaboration of the six women and A2A3, has raised nearly $80,000. The funds will be used to support research that focuses on finding an effective treatment and cure for ALS.
“We give all the proceeds from the events and donations and such to labs doing what we call ‘cure-based research,’” Ross said.
Ross said she appreciates the community’s support of A2A3.
“This is the largest initiative (A2A3 has) ever had, and we hope that brings attention to ALS as well as the urgent need for research fund,” Ross said.
While the team was training to swim across the English Channel last March, Mercer came across medical problems of her own when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ross said everyone’s immediate reaction to Mercer’s diagnosis was that they expected her to take time off for treatment and perhaps not swim at all.
“The more (Mercer) realized all the treatment options she had available to her was made possible by people who have donated to research for breast cancer, she became that much (more) determined to continue to cross the English Channel for ALS research and for people like Bob,” she said.
According to Schoeni, Mercer had her last chemotherapy on July 9, only two and a half weeks before the team’s swim across the English Channel.
“What an incredible inspiration they are to me, giving me strength as I deal with changes in my body,” Scheoni said.
A2A3 has funded three different ALS research organizations — the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University, a nonprofit biotech company in Cambridge, Mass. and the University of Michigan.
ALS research at the University is conducted under Eva Feldman, neurology professor and director of the program for neurology research and discovery.
Gretchen Spreitzer, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management and Schoeni’s wife, said Feldman and her team plan to start a clinical trial of intraspinal transplantation of stem cells on ALS patients by next month.
“It’s been a selfless, amazing story of the swimmers doing this to raise awareness and research funds for ALS,” Spreitzer said.
Spreitzer said her husband’s battle would be harder to fight without the support from the community and added that yesterday was the fourth anniversary of his diagnosis.
“We appreciate the love, support and encouragement of the University community every day that Bob fights this awful disease,” Spreitzer said.