At 56 years old, Thomas Olsen
had achieved many of his
owned a mortgage company, recently celebrated his
35th wedding anniversary and was a grandfather.Now all he
had to do was swim the English Channel.
And then it happened to him: Cancer.The one-time University of Florida distance swimmer, who later trained with the Navy UDT (now Navy Seals), could not believe it at first.
"I had been athletic all his
said."I watched my health, never smoked or drank, except for the occasional glass of wine." Now, he
faced surgery and months of recovery. "Cancer is like eternity looking you in the face," he
said."It strikes without reason or warning."
had always been survivor.At three years old, paralyzed with polio, he was the official poster child for the March of Dimes and later, after intensive therapy, achieved complete recovery.Olsen
was going to beat cancer, he
was going to swim the English Channel.
"There are two paths you can take," said Olsen
."You can feelsorry for yourself and say poor me or you can say I've got to do something for myself.As my body began to heal, I resolved to seize the day and not waste whatever time I had left.You stay young by doing, experiencing life and helping others."Olsen, 60, the owner-president of Continental Mutual Mortgage Corp., says he has been in remission for four years.
That meant throwing himself into a strict diet and training regime, and swimming in the San Francisco Alcatraz Invitational as a warm up for the English Channel.The event raises money for the Make a Wish Foundation
, which grants special wishes to children stricken with cancer.
The conditions in San Francisco Bay are almost identical to those of the English Channel: lots of fog, cold air, frigid temperatures and rough currents.Before tackling Alcatraz, however, Olsen
decided to participate in the annual Walgreen's 280 mile AIDS Ride from Orlando to Hollywood.
By the following year in 1999, he
started to prepare.In a typical week, he
would swim 15 miles in a pool, bike ride 150 miles, crunch out 600 sit-ups and 1,000 bench presses.In August 2001, he
"To a distance swimmer, it appeared easy enough to swim the little distance of more than a mile and a half separating the island from the pier," said Olsen
."But I knew that the frigid waters (77 to 62 degrees) and swift currents in San Francisco required special conditioning.Not to mention the presence of sharks."Olsen
completed the swim and was the top money raiser in the tournament.
"I savored the moment with my family," he
At the tournament, he
met people he
later would swim the English Channel with.Joining four other Southend Rowing Club members - John Mervin, Mary Alex, Pam Ware and David Hover - he
formed the English Channel Relay Team.As the training progressed, Olsen
continued to have the support of his
family.Yet others also started to doubt him.
"My friends doubted my mental state," he
said."They started to ask me a litany of questions: ‘Why attempt such a thing?Why are you doing this at your age?What's wrong with you?' But, to me, swimming the English Channel was the brass ring.In many ways, it's synonymous with my recovery from cancer."
Last month, Olsen
flew to England with his coach and close friend, Ed McCormick, to meet the rest of the relay team.
Yet, on their first day at the beach for a practice swim, Olsen
had a little difficulty getting his
"As we plunged into the icy waters, I missed the buoy due to my poor eyesight and continued swimming out to sea," he
said."I later found out that the rest of the team had rounded the buoy and, discovering that I was missing from their ranks, called out the English Coast Guard to look for me.I soon found their boat alongside me and, in their typically polite English manner, they inquired what I was doing and whether I'd consider boarding their boat.Bruised pride aside, I complied."
The day finally arrived, however.At 1a.m., Olsen
arose with his
team and two hours later the first swimmer entered the water, swimming behind a boat steered by a Channel pilot who guides swimmers through the seagoing traffic.
"Swimmers, France awaits you," proclaimed the pilot.
The sky was black as pitch and the seas were flat, though the white cliffs never seemed too far away."At my appointed turn, I entered the water and started digging forward," said Olsen
."I had slicked down my body with a layer of grease to prevent irritation from salt and other sea elements.At some point, the slapping waves in the midst of passing ships caused me to swallow seawater.As they crossed our path, I would swim behind them.Their propellers churned up water from the depths of the Channel and I swam through ice water for 100-feet behind the passing vessels as the temperature dropped to 49 degrees.
Then suddenly as I passed the wake, the temperature would rise to 57 degrees.
saw a tailfin from a large sea creature at one moment in the swim.
"I couldn't tell if it was a shark or not," he
After swimming approximately 2.5 miles, it was the next swimmer's turn.
"My teammates helped me from the water," he
said."I was so numb from cold and shaking so uncontrollably that I couldn't remove my wet suit without assistance.They poured hot tea down my throat and wrapped me in towels."
Nine hours and 37-minutes later and only three miles from the French coast, they were caught in gale force winds.They were forced to abandon the mission.
"I got in sight of the beach," Olsen
said."I could see the trees on the beach and the waves splashing against the shore.But our pilot boat was being tossed about like a matchbox.It was extremely dangerous, everybody was sick, we couldn't make progress and we almost lost one person to hypothermia."Olsen
likens the experience to a woman having a baby.
"It was a brutal experience and we all swore we'd never do it again," he
said."That was our first reaction.
But you forget the pain, it's like a woman having a baby.I'll probably go back and take another shot at it.I've been trying to do this since I was 21-years old."