Marian Cardwell (pictured here) will attempt to swim the English Channel this summer and raise money for the Chicago Diabetes Project to honor her Uncle Wally who is a lifelong T1 survivor and has been beset by complications in recent years.

By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net

When Marian Cardwell dives into the English Channel in July, she will be attempting a feat that has been completed by less people than those who have successfully climbed Mount Everest.

The swim is 21 miles from Dover, England to Cap Gris Nez, France, but it has been said people often swim up to 30 miles across the channel because the ocean currents and weather are unpredictable and can easily take people off course. As the tides change every six hours, swimmers often cross over the Channel in an “S” shaped pattern.

The Channel is part of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the south of England and the north of France. The Channel has been characterized as having some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, so Cardwell will not only have to contend with large boats and their wake of wave patterns they create, but she will have to deal with cold water temperatures—which vary from between 57 and 62 degrees in the summer months—and could suffer potential jellyfish stings during her swimming trek.

In terms of her swimming experience, Cardwell swam in both high school and college having competed in the 400 yard individual medley, and 500 and 1650 yard freestyle. As many athletes do, she has suffered injuries along the way. She tore her labrum and rotator cuff in her left shoulder, with both injuries requiring surgeries. Later she was hit by a car while biking and separated the same shoulder. While the car accident did not require surgery or any extended physical therapy, it reaggravated an already vulnerable body part and added to chronic shoulder pain, which mostly flairs up when she swims.

Despite her nagging left shoulder pain and the potential obstacles of the Channel, Cardwell is the type of person who believes in taking challenges head on. For example, Cardwell is planning to go to medical school in the next few years and aspires to work as a physician in French-speaking west Africa. Therefore, to bolster her French speaking skills, she decided to move from her home in Wheaton, Illinois to France. Cardwell is living in the town of Lille working as an English teaching assistant for the year.

Along with her straightaway determination in tackling this incredibly rare athletic endeavor, Cardwell always has her beloved Uncle Wally in her mind while she trains. Wally Filkin has successfully navigated type 1 diabetes for nearly 57 years, and has served as an inspiration to his family.

While he has excelled with his disease management for decades, in the last couple of years, he has suffered a series of health problems starting with a stroke in 2010 and most recently being diagnosed with congestive heart failure last year.    

Knowing she was going to be thousands of miles away from her uncle during a time when his health was very fragile, she decided to bridge the miles physically by dedicating the Channel swim to him and raising money for the Chicago Diabetes Project, whose work her uncle admires.
 
She is currently training in a pool, but she lives close enough to the Channel to drive over and train there, which she expects to do in the next couple of months to acclimate herself to the frigid water temperatures. As part of the tradition but also to legitimize an official channel crossing, there are specific rules. Swimmers are only allowed to wear a regular swim suit—no full body suits allowed—head cap, goggles, ear plugs, and a special concoction of petroleum jelly and lanoline, which can be slathered on to help keep the body insulated.

DiabetesCare.net spoke with Cardwell to find out more about her Uncle Wally, the work of the Chicago Diabetes Project, and her quest to conquer the Channel.

DiabetesCare.net: What made you decide to say, ‘I’m going to swim the English Channel as a way of raising money for the Chicago Diabetes Project?`

Cardwell: Someone once suggested that I could swim the Channel. With my uncle’s condition and my placement in Lille, I started seriously thinking about it, and it became clear to me that I wanted to swim for him and for the Chicago Diabetes Project. It was hard for me to be away while he was getting sicker and swimming the Channel felt like a way I could continue to show my love and support from a distance.

DiabetesCare.net: Please tell us about your Uncle Wally (pictured here on the left, and her father, and Marian).

Cardwell: He is married, and has two married sons and eight grandchildren. He is a loving man, and everyone in our family has a great respect for him. He is clever, witty, and always has us laughing. At the same time, he is articulate. I would never want to get into a debate with him because I would definitely lose. 

He is also disciplined and athletic. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 15 and is almost 72 now. When he was diagnosed there were not a lot of treatment options and trying to figure out glucose control was more of a guessing game. When he was diagnosed, he was worried he wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore but the doctor told him if he took care of himself he could play.  

My uncle once spent an afternoon with Ron Santo (former Chicago Cubs third-baseman who also had type 1 diabetes), and found Ron had a similar experience. They were diagnosed at about the same point in their lives, and they both believed that a love of a sport helped them with their own disease management. What baseball was for Ron, basketball was for my uncle. It was a great motivator and taught him how to take care of himself. He ended up playing basketball in high school, college, and for various church leagues after college.

DiabetesCare.net: Why are you donating to the Chicago Diabetes Project?

Cardwell: I decided to choose this organization because of my uncle. He is well read on diabetes research and he likes to stay informed, as he has lived with the disease for most of his life. He is enthusiastic about the Chicago Diabetes Project and believes they will provide a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Because of his enthusiasm, I looked into the CDP’s research and quickly understood why it was exciting. They are performing islet cell transplants and have had a very good success rate. The patients who have successful transplants are no longer insulin-dependent. 

DiabetesCare.net: Your uncle has certainly been a survivor. Why the decision now? Was there a point at which you said, ‘I want to do this for this particular reason?’

Cardwell: In 2010 he had a stroke, and it radically changed everything for him and his immediate family. He had to relearn how to do everything. Slowly things improved, and we celebrated milestones like swallowing and walking. After a tough three months, he was released from the hospital, and six months after the stroke he was able to maintain a regular routine in his life. He was even able to celebrate my sister’s wedding.

Almost seven months after the stroke, he slipped and cracked his pelvis. Despite the setback, he kept his determined spirit to heal, and he recovered. He and my aunt were even able to return to Florida where they spend about half the year. But almost a year after he broke his pelvis, he fell again—this time breaking his hip. As before, he kept the same mindset of, “I will get through this,” and he did. After he recovered from his broken hip, he was doing quite well, and he and my aunt returned to Florida. But this turned out to be an unexpectedly quick trip—soon after they arrived, my uncle started to get sick. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.  

My uncle and aunt returned home this past Thanksgiving, and it was hard for me because I was here in France, unsure of what was going to happen. Surgery was an option for him, but the doctor told him the recovery would be too hard on his body. Fortunately, even without surgery, his condition has been stable over the last few months.

Battling injuries and health issues are difficult enough, but when they keep coming, you just want to say, ‘come on I want a break,’ yet he is always determined to recover and he always does. While he is not likely to return to the same level of health and activity that he enjoyed before the stroke, that doesn’t stop him from doing as much as he can.

Stroke and congestive heart failure are both side effects of lifelong diabetes. There have been quite a few times where I have thought about and appreciated the shortness of life and I would like to do this to honor him rather than in memory of him. He is alive and my shoulder is strong, so in a way it is like we are both able to do this now.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you talk about your training routine?

Cardwell: Right now, I lift weights twice a week. I also swim twice a day, three or four days a week and once a day two or three days a week for a total of six days every week.  Normally, I swim about 30-35 kilometers a week (about 18 to 21.8 miles), but this week I hit over 40.

In May, I will go up to training 40-50 kilometers per week. Then in July, I will begin to taper my miles back right before the channel swim.

DiabetesCare.net: In training for endurance events like marathons or long swims, there is a long training run or swim a few weeks before the big event to ensure the person is ready. How long will your long swim be? 
 
Cardwell: I would like to do one 30K swim before the end of June in cold water. There are also a series of swims in the middle of June that I will be doing including a 5K, 10K, and a 25K. I will do these in a three-day period.

DiabetesCare.net: As it is March, it is a bit too cold to go into the ocean right now. At what point will you be looking to get into the Channel to acclimate your body to the frigid waters?

Cardwell: I will likely start swimming the ocean water in May. I’m lucky to be close enough to the Channel (pictured below) that I could go there on a Saturday. Since the water will be about 60 to 62 degrees when I swim, and because I’m not allowed to wear a wet suit, I’m eager to start acclimating myself to cold water.  Also, in order to qualify for the Channel, I must do a six-hour certified cold-water swim. Otherwise, the boat captain won’t take me out.

DiabetesCare.net: In terms of support, who is helping you during the training and during the actual swim?

Cardwell: The people here, in the north of France, have been unbelievably welcoming. I had initially been going to a public pool, but then I met a coach and he welcomed me onto his team. I train with them in the afternoons. This coach also introduced to me to the coach of their ‘sister team’ who I train with in the mornings. If it weren’t for these two incredible people, this swim would not be possible.

During the actual swim, my mom and two dear friends will accompany me on the boat. Their job will be feeding me, keeping me hydrated, encouraging me, and hopefully not getting too seasick.
 
DiabetesCare.net: Aside from the actual distance what are the biggest physical challenges you believe you will face?

Cardwell: The cold temperature will be one. There is also a good possibility that I will be stung more than once by a jellyfish. As I have never had to swim that long, I am also concerned about my shoulder. But at the same time, the cold water or a jellyfish sting could distract me from my shoulder—that’s positive (she laughs). 

DiabetesCare.net: When are you planning to swim the Channel?

Cardwell: I have a time slot between July 10 and July 18.  My boat captain has three other people trying to cross that week, and I am in the fourth position. The swimmer in the first position will be offered a chance to swim first, but if he turns it down, it will go to the second person, etc, and finally to me. I will call my captain every day and he will either say, yes or no depending on the weather and the other swimmers’ responses. So it’s a waiting game. I won’t ever know the day until about 12 hours before. 

Like the day, the time also depends on the weather. Some people start at two or three in the morning and others start around seven or eight. If I do head out before the sun, I will have a little flashlight attached to my cap, so the boat crew can see me.

Though the weather directs when I will be able to swim, my captain directs me. He has a good record for successful crossings, and I feel very lucky to have him. According to other Channel swimmers, he is the best there is.

DiabetesCare.net: How long do you expect to be in the water, and do you have any specific goals for your swim?

Cardwell: I hope I will be in the water for about 12 to 14 hours. My biggest goals are to finish and to enjoy it. By the time July comes around, I’ll have done all the hard preparation work. The only thing left will be a chilly, and perhaps stinging swim. So when it finally comes to the swim, my goal is to do it with a smile on my face and to enjoy the ride. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to honor my uncle.
 
Contributions for Cardwell’s fund to support the Chicago Diabetes Project can be made directly here, and to read her blog go to her website here.  
 
With this story, we are beginning a new occasional series called “My Contribution.” This series will highlight everyday people who through an athletic accomplishment, some type of endeavor, or advocacy are doing their part to help in the fight against diabetes. We are going to be showing a photo and caption provided by individuals as they show something personal, meaningful, in their quest to make a contribution to diabetes research.To find Cardwell’s My Contribution, go to our DiabetesCare.net Provider Facebook page.