Benefield: Splashers do their part to fight cancer

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Sometimes at athletic events, participants can start to look similar to one another.

Same lithe bodies. Same outfits. Same shoes.

Being one of the crowd wasn’t a problem for Maggie Pahlow at a recent swimming event.

“I was the youngest and the only mermaid there,” she said.

That’s two points for uniqueness for the young Ms. Pahlow.

Pahlow, who is 6 and lives in Sebastopol, not only donned a mermaid costume and tiara for the Swim A Mile fundraiser for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, she completed the whole thing alongside her grandmother, Kelly Jensen of Petaluma.

“We were in the pool for an hour and a half,” Jensen said, sounding half amused and half awed by her granddaughter’s determination. “She was starting to get cold from being in the water so long. Her little teeth were chattering but she just finished. And she was so proud of herself. She said ‘I did it. I did the whole mile.’ ”

“Here she is, this little girl, and here I am, this old lady, but we are both women and we were working for women,” Jensen, 57, said.

The Swim A Mile event at Mills College staged Oct. 4 and 5 is set to raise an expected record-setting $415,000 for the Oakland-based Women’s Cancer Resource Center. The event has pulled in $3.8 million since its founding 19 years ago. That’s pretty good considering the first swim nearly two decades ago brought in just $15,000.

The non-profit agency provides psychological, emotional and practical support for both women and men dealing with cancer.

The event puts about 600 swimmers of all abilities into lanes at the college over two days. Athletes can swim, water walk, dance or doggy-paddle — anything to knock off enough laps to call it a mile. Jensen said it’s a kick to watch the “real” swimmers check their wristwatches and monitor their splits — while she just gets it done any way she can.

“I’m not an athlete,” she said. “The people who are really good, they like to check their time. I’m just like, ‘I’m out of the pool, I’m good.’ ”

Good doesn’t cover it.

The Sonoma Splashers, led by Liz Larew of Forestville, have become one of the event’s top fundraising teams.

They were the top team of their size last year and so far this year trail only the WCRC staff team in funds raised.

“They are fabulous,” Swim A Mile event coordinator Christine Sinnot said of the Sonoma Splashers.

Jensen came to cheer at the event five years ago when Larew organized a team to support the agency that supported her when she battled cancer. The next year, Jensen, adamant that she is not an athlete, was in the water too.

“It makes to feel solidarity, like we are all here doing the same thing for a reason,” she said. “There was a mother and her three teenage sons and she had breast cancer and they were all swimming with her.”

And swimming with Jensen was little Pahlow in her pink mermaid outfit.

“I was impressed that she wanted to be a part of that,” Maggie’s mom, Katie Pahlow said. “Six-year-olds are usually a little bit ‘What can I get out of this?’ ”

Maggie Pahlow didn’t get, she gave. More than $400 of the Sonoma Splashers’ current $7,000 fundraising haul came from Maggie’s backers.

But her impact was more than dollars and cents.

As people are completing their swim, or getting a bite to eat, or having a post-swim massage, people share their stories of dealing with cancer. Names of survivors are read aloud, names of those who lost their battle to the disease are read aloud, too. There’s some thinking to be done while one is ticking off the laps.

“A lot is on your mind,” Jensen said of the time in the water. “You hear announcements, you hear the people’s names who have survived cancer and who have lost their lives to cancer. You do think about cancer.”

The emotions can rise and fall during the day, just like the water around the swimmer. At times, Jensen said she would feel nearly angry. Angry that so many people — swimming next to her and people who she’s never met — have to fight such a battle.

A non-swimmer swimming a mile to help that person? No problem.

“It is such an insidious disease,” she said. “It makes me mad.”

“You think of what people go through in chemo or radiation and surgery,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I can do this standing on my head, dammit.’ ”

For Pahlow, the little mermaid who was the youngest swimmer in the pool that day, it took a little grit to make it through 90 minutes of laps.

A little kick board, a little of grandma’s help, a little breather at the pool’s edge — whatever kept her going to complete the whole swim.

And when it seemed like she couldn’t go any more? When the journey was just too difficult?

“I pretend I’m a mermaid,” she said.

If only that worked for all of us.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or and on Twitter @benefield.

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