January. Ohio and Tennesse. Swimming.
100 x 100. Let me say that again. 100 x 100. That’s 10,000 yards. Of swimming. That’s a LOT of 100s.
On an absolutely frigid morning in January, a number of swimmers left their warm beds and homes (or came after working all night), and made the trek - many driving over an hour - to gather at the LIFT center in Jackson, TN. The challenge - 100x100 yards in support and honor of a dear friend of mine, Ron Turney. Many who swam know Ron, some do not. Many swam further than they ever have, some swam more 100's than they ever have, but all swam together for a common cause . . . a challenge of 100 x 100 yards of swimming to celebrate a sport that Ron loves, and to raise awareness for a terrible disease - ALS. A disease that has affected Ron Turney.
I would like to tell you about Ron. First and foremost, Ron loves to swim. LOVES to swim. He started swimming at age 10 in California (1966). He has three brothers, and he says his mother had them do two things (in hopes of keeping them out of trouble) - swim and play a musical instrument. While his brothers also swam, it was Ron who developed a passion and talent for the water. During high school he would swim in the morning from 5:15-6:45, had band practice from 7 - 7:45, school from 8 - 3, and was back in the pool from 3:30-5:30. (As an aside, Ron's chosen instrument was the trombone, which he also grew to love. He played in college, and used to play for money while at the Citadel to help with his bills.) He went on to swim collegiate while at the Citadel, and he became a Navy Pilot in 1979. He remained active with the Navy until 1995. While at the citadel his 'fondest' swimming-related memory was "Wicked Wednesday" - 18,000 yards, over three pool sessions during the day (and yes, I am being slightly sarcastic).
Ron later went on to get his MBA and eventually he began working as a pharmaceutical drug rep while living in Jackson, TN. Which is how he came into my life. You see, my father is a family doctor. He started getting into triathlons and would swim on his lunch break. One day back in 1989 or 1990 this drug rep noticed a speedo drying in the corner of his office, and they started talking swimming. Then they started swimming together. They discovered Total Immersion and the importance of technique and efficiency when applied to the swim stroke. Then they started racing triathlons together. And he became a good friend - basically he became family. Ron was always my 'gold standard' to see where I stacked up when we raced together. If I could come within a couple minutes of his swim time at the Memphis in May Triathlon - I felt like I had a successful race.
Ron moved to Ohio the winter of 1999. He continued to swim and race triathlons, and became very active in the swim scene there. He was asked to coach a kids YMCA swim team, which is where he met and became good friends with pro triathlete Amy Javens. Eventually he went on to start coaching a High School swim team - he basically took a group of kids with no swimming background, taught them to be efficient swimmers using Total Immersion swim technique, and those kids went on to qualify for the district championships.
Ron continued to race triathlons pretty competitively, but in 2009-2010 he started having difficulty with his running due to muscle cramps. At his annual physical he mentioned this and was advised to drink more water, that maybe it was just part of the 'aging process'. He turned back to swimming to give his legs a rest, and swam pretty competitively with a masters group. The muscle cramps continued though, affecting his shins even while swimming. He then started feeling like he was losing some strength - he would do 'pop-ups' (like pushups) onto the pool deck and found them getting increasingly difficult. Next the muscle cramps started occurring at night as well. He knew something was really wrong when one day he found he could barely do 5 pushups. Things finally came to a head around March 2014 when he noticed he could not snap his fingers on his right hand. He had right shoulder surgery in the past and thought that might have something to do with that. He went to see his doctor who ordered an EMG (a nerve and muscle study) and the results showed a lot of abnormalities...which is when the doctor mentioned ALS was a possibility. Within 3 weeks he was seen by a specialist, Dr. Kolb at Ohio State University, (he also currently sees Dr. Selkirk through the VA) and the official diagnosis was made.
ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig's disease. A progressive neurodegenerative disease which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, robbing the brain of it's ability to initiate and control muscle movement until it is completely lost resulting in total paralysis. For anyone, but especially an athlete, worse than your worst nightmare.
Two years ago, Amy started this swim challenge in Ohio - to honor Ron and bring awareness to this terrible, terrible disease. I contemplated traveling to Ohio to join in this year, but then thought maybe there would be enough interest locally to do our own challenge here in TN. So, I ‘tested the water’ and found there was, and so - we did.
I contacted Amy, and she was 100% on board when I inquired about doing an event the same time and date as hers, but here in TN. I then approached the LIFT Wellness Center, a state of the art facility in Jackson, TN, where I do a fair amount of swimming and training; and they were also 100% on board as soon as I mentioned the idea. They opened early, made sure their staff was available, and donated all proceeds to ALS. My husband, Jeffery M Sass, was a huge help in coordinating everything so I could swim, and was one of the first ones in and the last ones out of the pool at the end (although there was a little hot tub time in there....)
As I was trying to coordinate the event as well as participate, I did not have an opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to those who came. So - thank you. As a group we swam over 25 miles. Although the challenge is to draw awareness and raise money for ALS, for many it became a personal challenge to test oneself - mentally as much as physically. It is so easy to become complacent and take for granted the things we can do....until we no longer can. I hope this challenge will continue - for ALS as well as to remind us how lucky we are to be able to do what we do, and to test those limits. I would also like to say a huge thank you to Ron. No one knows how many lives they touch, in countless ways. Suffice it too say, you have touched quite a number. On this day, we swam for you. You cross my mind frequently, in so many ways - your strength is an inspiration.
A few days before the swim, Ron called me. He was very touched that we were doing a swim challenge for him. He proceeded to tell me how he has a saying kind of like the ‘Keep Moving Forward’ idea. His is “Do The Next Thing”. You see, he told me, one day last year he wanted to ride his bike. He tried several times, but kept falling because his muscles and balance just would not let him. Now, there are many different possible reactions Ron could have had. It would have been easy to get angry, or depressed, or give up. But instead, he told me - “So, I just moved on to the next thing I was able to do - “Do The Next Thing”. And, folks, that has got to be one of the bravest, strongest, most optimistic and amazing things I have ever heard. Although I wish I could say I would be so strong I don’t know that I would. I have thought about that a lot in the days since. When the weather is cold, gray, and windy and I need to get out on the bike. When it’s dark and raining and early and I’m heading out to run. And, especially, when I am swimming. Somehow my excuses and lack of motivation evaporate when I reflect back on those words . . . “Do The Next Thing”.
I spoke to Ron again just before completing this story. He told me his last triathlon was June of 2015. He had to do the backstroke for the swim (freestyle was just too difficult), but he still managed to crank out the 15 mile bike at 19mph. The run, however, is what really hurt - but of course he refused to walk. It took him 2 weeks to recover. And he knew, that was too much. His last time in the pool was fall of 2015, and again the fatigue afterwards and extended recovery-time brought the realization that his swimming days were also over.
Nothing is a given. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. Seize your opportunities and make the most of what you have. Use your talents to their fullest. Chase your dreams. Refuse to settle. And when all else fails - Do The Next Thing.
Thank you Ron for being an inspiration.
I am proud to know you.
And . . . more pictures: