Swimmer ignores her pain to raise money for cancer patients

Anders walks with crutches but can glide across the bay

April 11, 2010|By Rob Kasper | rob.kasper@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

On land Viki Anders has some trouble getting around. She walks with aid of crutches, the result of foot injury and a subsequent condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. But in the water she swims like a dolphin.

Early Sunday a few days shy of her 60th birthday, Anders eased herself into the pool at the McDonogh School and swam the butterfly for 1,500 meters, almost a mile.

She did it to raise money for the Johns Hopkins Patient and Family Fund. It assists needy cancer patients and their families with expenses not covered by insurance during their treatment.

Swimming to raise money for this fund has become a habit for Anders, a grandmother from Parkton who sports a tattoo of a dolphin on her left shoulder. She has been doing it since 1995, when she swam around Manhattan and almost got sucked under a cruise boat.

Over the years she has participated in swimming events that raised an estimated $600,000 for the fund. While donations for Sunday's swim were still coming in to Barry L. Miller at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, a similar event in February raised $3,000, Anders said.

In a brief interview before her swim, Anders said she began swimming in 1984 "because I weighed over 200 pounds and wanted to lose weight." Now she swims six days a week between 6 and 9 o'clock in the morning. Two of those days she swims at the Maryland Athletic Center and four at McDonogh with the Eagles Masters team.

The butterfly, in which a swimmer employs the dolphin kick, is a tough stroke, said David Amato, coach of the Eagles Masters. Anders said she chose to swim the fly because it offered a challenge. "Nobody will give you money if you swim the free style for 1,500 meters, that is too easy," she said.

Anders said her disabled left foot does make pushing off the pool wall painful, but she has learned to lessen the pain by using her toes. She injured the foot in a household accident in 2004, and after three operations still has numbness and fiery pain in her left leg. She uses a scooter to get around at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Hopkins, where she is a nurse practitioner and clinic coordinator .She said she never considered stopping swimming.

"Swimming has been my lifesaver," she said, adding that she hoped other people afflicted with the complex pain syndrome "would see that their life is not over, that they do not have to be housebound."

To ready herself for Sunday's swim, Anders rose early, ate a banana, drank a mixture of chocolate and chai tea, sipped what she called "a supercharged energy drink," and periodically took sips from a plastic bottle filled with a watery solution rich in electrolytes.

Her husband, Charles Straining, who is also her masseur, drove her to the pool. There, members of her family including two grandchildren, Zion Altomonte , 10, and Kristie Altomonte, 12, cheered her on, as did about 20 fellow swimmers, members of the Eagles Masters team.

Working with Amato, her coach, Anders had outlined a strategy for the 1,500-meter swim. "The first 500 I am just waking up. The next 1,000 I swim like a dolphin, every muscle relaxed."

As she entered the final laps other swimmers in the eight-lane pool stopped their workouts to watch. They broke into applause as she finished, in a time of 35 minutes, 22 seconds. One member of the Eagles presented her with a homemade "medal" marking her accomplishment.

"My right hip started to hurt, but I only had three laps to go so I told myself 'forget that.'" Anders said.

Next on her swimming and fundraising calendar is the journey across the Chesapeake Bay in early June. She has made that swim 15 times, but last year had to get out of the water when tides made finishing unsafe.

She also has plans for 20 years hence. "Maybe on my 80th birthday, I'll swim 80 laps," she said.

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