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La Jolla Cove Swim Club president’s 12-mile ‘Swimming Beyond Cancer’ reflects his personal journey

Dan Simonelli, president of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club
Dan Simonelli, president of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, will do the 12-mile Anacapa Island swim Sept. 10 to raise funds for Swim Across America.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla Cove Swim Club President Dan Simonelli is partaking Sept. 10 in an endeavor that would be a feather in anyone’s (swim) cap — the 12-mile Anacapa Island swim off Oxnard. But to Simonelli, it’s much more meaningful than a dip in the ocean — it’s part of his journey on the way to beating cancer.

Simonelli is a longtime volunteer with Swim Across America, which aids cancer research through fundraising swims. Little did he know that one day he would be on the receiving end of cancer treatment. And that he would later be strong enough to give back.

In 2018, Simonelli was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. But through the physical and emotional ups and downs of treatment and healing, he kept swimming.

“I kept forcing myself to swim,” he said. “Some days I would feel OK and some days the side effects [of the treatment] would linger. I found my only real respite from it in the water. I could escape and avoid and deny it for a while. I couldn’t go long, but I would go in.”

At the same time, doctors encouraged Simonelli to decide on a course of treatment.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “A friend swimmer had turned me on to California Cancer Care. I went over for a consultation and they had a study I happened to qualify for because of a mutation in the cancer. So I went with that and I got started on treatment in spring 2018. I was on chemotherapy pills every day and immunotherapy infusions every few weeks.”

After a year, his scans detected no cancer. But Simonelli is not out of the woods yet. Doctors recommend repeated scans for five years.

“Depression [associated with cancer] keeps you from doing much on certain days, and I had days when I thought, ‘Why plan on doing anything?’ because of the side effects from the treatment. But I thought of that quote from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ of ‘Get busy living or get busy dying,’ so I wanted to get busy living,” he said.

He picked up the pace of his swims and pushed a little harder each time.

“I visualized all my swims as one big long swim I used to do, even if it was just a mile or two,” he said. “I got into that mind-set to keep going.”

Then one day he had a hindsight realization. His last personal swim was the Island Hopper in Santa Barbara in 2017 —months before his diagnosis — but he couldn’t finish the last of four swims.

“I didn’t feel right, and it turned out to be a tumor in my lung,” Simonelli said.

That last swim? The Anacapa.

The swim, facilitated by the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, will proceed this year because organizers determined they could do so in a way that is COVID-19-safe.

“When they decided to have the swim, I decided I would do it,” Simonelli said. “So, I started getting it together and training and getting myself back in the mind-set [I need because] the mental game is always a big part … but I feel pretty good. I just hope the water isn’t too crazy.”

Simonelli’s swim, which he is calling “Swimming Beyond Cancer,” will serve as a fundraiser for Swim Across America. He has raised about $12,000 as of Sept. 3. Donations are being accepted up to and beyond the event.

“I want to have the fundraiser be as much as it can be,” he said. “It’s a big deal. Swim Across America has funded pioneering ideas, immunotherapy being a big one. They were in on it early on. Scientists have ideas but they can’t get grants, and Swim Across America steps in and funds this research. I would have been at a 5 percent survival rate at my diagnosis … but the treatment options have really progressed and it has to do with scientists getting microfunding to try these things out.”

Swim Across America, founded in 1987, has granted more than $85 million through 21 open-water swimming fundraising events and over 100 pool swimming fundraisers.

Simonelli has been with the La Jolla Cove Swim Club since 2009.

On Jan. 10, 2019, he rescued a swimmer who had gotten stuck as high, surging waves washed him toward a rocky bluff in The Cove in an area known as The Hole.

He removed his outer clothing and entered the 60-degree water wearing swim fins, grasped the struggling man and guided him away from the rocks, staying with him until lifeguards shuttled him to shore.

Simonelli later received a Carnegie Hero Award for the daring rescue. The award recognizes extraordinary acts of civilian bravery in the United States and Canada.

To learn more about Simonelli’s swim or to donate, visit swimacrossamerica.org/goto/dan-simonelli.