By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Long-time USA Swimming corporate partner Phillips 66 has been a sponsor since 1973 and involved in the sport overall for seven decades. Today, Phillips 66 believes they can improve lives through energy, and in that spirit, usaswimming.org is highlighting swimmers of all levels who have benefited from Phillips 66's contribution and chosen to give back to the sport of swimming or to their community.
It was during a flight from New York to San Diego two years ago when Alli DeFrancesco had an epiphany.
Returning home after attending the funeral of her college swim coach, Lauren Beam, who died from colon cancer, and in remission herself after a two-year battle with lymphoma cancer, DeFrancesco decided to make a grand statement in the water.
Right then, she made a commitment to swim the English Channel to remember Lauren, increase awareness about cancer and cancer survivorship and raise money to support First Descents, a charitable organization that offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.
“It’s still amazing to me how people still don’t talk much about cancer and cancer survivors, like it’s a taboo topic or something,” DeFrancesco said. “I’ve made it my personal mission to raise awareness and get people talking about it. It doesn’t need to be the C-word anymore.”
After a failed attempt last year in September due to weather, DeFrancesco made good on her personal promise to her former New York University coach and everyone else living with cancer this past August (28th, to be exact) when she completed the Channel swim in less than 12 hours.
For a good portion of the last hour and a half of her swim across the tumultuous, unpredictable waters, DeFrancesco said all she did was swim in position against the strong currents.
“It was like swimming on a treadmill and getting nowhere,” DeFrancesco said. “I started crying into my goggles and felt like I was never going to make it to shore.”
But once she reached the rocky shoreline, she embraced her accomplishment and dedicated the race to Beam and everyone else living with cancer.
“She maintained a blistering pace, reaching the French coast in 11 hours 14 minutes, combatting 2-3 meter seas, 10-14 mph winds with gusts ranging from 15-17 mph, jellyfish, cold water (wetsuits are prohibited) and commercial shipping boats,” said her Athletic Trainer Brian Finn.
“When she stepped foot on the French shores, not only did she accomplish her dream, she won the honor of calling herself the first Italian woman to ever complete the English Channel swim.”
A swimmer since she was really small, learning to love the water, riding her dad’s and uncle’s shoulders into the water as a 2-year-old and then beoming a competitive swimmer at 10 – DeFrancesco was nearing the end of her swimming career at NYU when she was diagnosed. A month earlier, Beam was also diagnosed.
DeFrancesco returned home to San Diego to seek treatment, missing her college graduation, and after a lengthy battle, was told she was cancer-free. Beam, however, wasn’t as fortunate, succumbing to her stage-4 cancer in September 2011.
“Lauren was inspirational to me in so many ways,” said DeFrancesco, who lives in San Diego and works at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “The day of my graduation, while I was receiving chemotherapy and not able to walk with my classmates, Laura told me, ‘Don’t hang onto what the doctors tell you. Whatever you do, stay positive.’”
For DeFrancesco, who admits she felt guilty at first for living when her friend, who was five-months pregnant at the time of her diagnosis, didn’t, swimming the Channel was a way to show cancer it didn’t get the best of her while remembering her friend and coach.
While continuing to work full-time, she dedicated herself to training almost 55 miles, six days a week splitting time between the pool and open water. Two to three days a week, she did an additional hour of strength training and physical therapy in the gym with Brian.
“I remember playing “The Game of Life” as a kid, and one of the challenges on there was swimming the English Channel; it became a quest for me and a quest other people, swimmers or not, could understand and appreciate as something universally understood,” DeFrancesco said.
“With this being my second year at it, I have made a greater attempt to embrace the cold. That meant driving with the air conditioner on, swimming through the winter, refusing wetsuits, taking cold showers and eating anything that’s not nailed down. I even bought a kiddie pool to fill with ice water and soak in.”
Now that’s she’s accomplished her goal, what’s next for DeFrancesco? She’s keeping her future plans close to the vest right now, but she’s considering a couple of other swimming quests – and of course monitoring her health and living every day to the fullest.
She also continues to support and raise money for First Descents via her website at www.channeledin.com. All proceeds go to the organization.
“Lauren’s passing was a wake-up call that I had been blessed with the unique opportunity to take a negative series of events and do something momentously positive,” DeFrancesco said. “I began to get excited about the little ways in which I had learned so much about myself through my adversity.
“Living with cancer and swimming the Channel has given me a new respect for life and made me realize I can overcome anything and everything in life. I’m ready for more, I just don’t know what that might be yet.”