By Linda Hutchison
When you’re a young woman returning from the funeral of another young woman, what do you think about?
For some, it might be returning safely, quickly and gratefully to normal life. But if you’re Allison (Alli) DeFrancesco, a competitive swimmer, and you’ve just lost your favorite swim coach to cancer, you think in different terms — especially if you’re a cancer survivor yourself.
Just a year after receiving a bone marrow transplant in 2010 to combat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, DeFrancesco attended the funeral of her NYU swim coach Lauren Beam, who died at 32 of colon cancer. On the long flight back to San Diego, DeFrancesco found herself exploring new territory.
“I felt I had to do something,” she said. “I had to turn a negative into a positive. I wanted to do something personal, yet universally meaningful.” Why not swim the English Channel, also known as the Everest of swimming? What better way to celebrate the memory of her coach and her own recovery?
“It was also a way of reclaiming my life and not letting cancer define it,” said DeFrancesco, who has been cancer-free for two years.
Once back home in Del Mar, she mentioned the idea to her swim club coach Joe Benjamin and he encouraged her to go forward. She reserved the required pilot boat and time slot, Sept. 23-24. (Because bad weather can delay English Channel swims, the date is not exact.)
Just as DeFrancesco will plunge into the Channel, she plunged into her rigorous training routine: swimming 40 miles a week, six mornings and evenings, alternating ocean (La Jolla Cove) and pool. She also cross-trains at a gym in Cardiff with a personal trainer. She fits her workouts around her full-time position as a registrar for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
In addition to the challenge of training, she also has to eat enough food to add 10-30 pounds to her lean 5’10” frame, so she’ll be able to handle the 60-degree English Channel water.
“Eating and preparing food has become my second full-time job,” she said, not always easy after a full day of training and working.
The routine is also helping her heal and learn patience, she said, both as a person and as a swimmer. A competitive sprinter by training, she must now call on her mental as well as physical strength to swim the distance.
DeFrancesco’s love of swimming began early — at the age of one — when she jumped into the deep end of her grandparent’s swimming pool in Del Mar. Her uncle dove in and rescued her.
“Growing up, I was always in the ocean, body surfing on the backs of my father and uncle,” she said. She went on to become a competitive swimmer in high school and at NYU, where she majored in art history.
The same uncle who saved DeFrancesco 23 years ago, Richard Wheelock, Jr., will accompany her across the Channel, in the pilot boat with the captain and her athletic trainer, Brian Finn.
She’ll enter the water at Shakespeare Beach in England (next to the White Cliffs of Dover), where her mother will help send her off, and exit at Cap Gris-Nez in France.
Although the straight-across distance is about 23 miles, swimmers must zigzag through unpredictable currents, which adds miles and can mean finishing as much as eight miles north or south of Cap Gris-Nez.
The average time for the English Channel swim is 13 hours.
During the swim, DeFrancesco will be fed liquid carbs and monitored closely for stroke count. The Channel Swim Association does not allow wet suits. “It’ll just be my Speedo, swim cap, goggles, and glo sticks,” she said. And grease.
The biggest external challenges facing Channel swimmers are weather, currents, jellyfish, floating debris, diesel fuel, and other ships (the Channel is the world’s busiest shipping lane, with approximately 500 ships passing through every day).
DeFrancesco is still raising money for her swim and plans to donate any extra funds to First Descents, a non-profit organization that helps young adults with cancer enjoy outdoor adventures.
A dual citizen of the United States and Italy, she worked at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice and sees more travel and more outdoor activities in her future.