Fireman fights cancer with water, not fire

Mike receives a massage from fellow swimmer and professional massage therapist Susan Herner during one of his breaks.

Fireman Mike Young is used to fighting fires with water, but this year, on his 42nd birthday, this fireman fought cancer with water.  He waged his battle by swimming a long distance swim fundraiser and named it the Aquathon.

Trained to help others in his profession, Mike was spurred on by multiple cancer strikes in his family.  The last straw was losing his sister-in-law Theresa Johnson last August 2009.

Young wanted to do something that would make more of a difference than just a simple donation.  Within three days of losing his sister-in-law, Mike quickly settled on a plan for something familiar to him as a former competitive swimmer and current Westview Healthplex Masters member, swimming. He decided that to make more of a difference the fundraiser for cancer research would need to be bigger and better than the average swim.  That led to his selection of a “marathon” distance swim of 26.2 miles or 46,100 yards.  Thus the first ever American Cancer Society Aquathon event was born.

Mike began earnestly after losing his sister-in-law to train for the long distance swim.  Through the help of his own research, co-workers, family, coaches, fellow swimmers , triathletes and club well –wishers, the other aspects of his plan evolved into a complete one-day event.  He asked other swimmers to volunteer for an hour at a time to keep him company, pace him and keep his spirits up when he would need it.  When the long swim might get “old” and would hit the inevitable dip, the support was key to reach his goal.  Co-workers helped with the required Paramedic and EMT readiness on the day of the event. Family helped with nutrition and counting laps.

Young started the swim training by emphasis on building up his swim endurance by adding distance each week to his normal swims with the Westview Healthplex Masters morning workouts.  Once his endurance allowed, he added additional pool time in the afternoons with son, Travis Young.  Former coach, Sharon Shaw supported his efforts in the afternoons.

Next, he learned how to train with nutrition products to find the best energy and protein replacement sources for his body to recharge and maintain during the planned day long swim. Experienced triathlete and distance swimmers aided his research in this area.

Last but not least, he arranged the swim into sets of 2500 yards each. This allowed planned rest and nutrition breaks with additional longer breaks of 10 minutes at the 10,000 yard milestones. At these longer breaks he would actually get out of the pool and walk around.

Pike Township Firefighters and EMT volunteers on their “pool shift” to support Mike Young. Left to Right: Dave,Mark and Jose.

Always the fireman, safety was not overlooked either.  His fellow Pike Township firemen volunteered their time and his department head approved his time off for the event.  They volunteered one of their ambulances to keep a full EMT crew on site in case of any emergencies. Fortunately and thanks to his good planning none were needed physically.  Their presence however was paramount to his comfort and encouragement to him all day long.

Starting at 7 a.m. sharp, Mike hopped in the pool and starting clicking off the laps in the 25 yard pool at a brisk 1:24 per 100 yard pace.  It was his plan to accomplish as much yardage while fresh to reduce the yardage while not fresh at the end.

Coincidentally, but appropriately enough, the first swimmer to swim an hour with Mike was Dr. Dan Weed, one of the team of doctors that provided care for Theresa Johnson, the initial inspiration for his swim.  Over the course of the 13 hours and 50 minutes in the pool at least 22 swimmers swam alongside on one or both sides of him.

At the end, when he needed it most, three fellow Healthplex US Masters swimmers (Malik Nouri, Billy Jolliffe and Greg Kopecky) hung armstroke by armstroke with him for the last two hours and one, Kopecky, swam the last three hours with him.

Keeping pace for the last grueling laps, left to right: Billy Jolliffe, Mike Young, Greg Kopecky

Appropriately enough, his last 50 yards were nicknamed his “Victory Lap” and the other swimmers let him finish the swim “solo”.  Cheers and applause from all the supporters who stuck it out until the end came with the last touch at 8:50pm.  A tired but “happy at his accomplishment” Mike Young climbed out of the pool by himself and hugged all his supporters while they congratulated him. Taking out the break times, Mike was swimming for approximately 11 hours and 11 minutes.

After the swim, Mike reported for duty at the station, as part of his normal shift, but this time he was stationed at the firehouse until rested, which also enabled medical care to be handy if needed. Once again, no medical care was needed.

His success in the pool was mirrored by the monetary donations to the American Cancer Society for his event. Donations were taken that day and online at:

At this writing his original goal of raising $1000 for cancer research was exceeded by more than two and a half times.  The event has raised $2,613.20 already and continues to gain new donations.

Afterwards, Mike reflected on his unusually long swim accomplishment and wanted to thank all his supporters, he claims it was a team effort and he could not have done it without everyone’s support.

When prodded further Young also expounded that he saw some additional and unexpected side benefits of the experience.  An obvious one was his own fitness, eating habits and trimming down 25 pounds to almost his high school weight range.

Unexpected was how it brought his already close family even tighter together; wife Darla, son Travis and daughter Alicia Young all rallied and supported him over the six months. They were present all day at the actual event and shared in responsibilities. Darla provided nutrition, Travis counted laps and flagged the 1000, 2000 and 2500 yard milestones, Alicia a lifeguard at Healthplex, lifeguarded and counted laps once off lifeguard duty.

Masters coach Eileen Davis observed how it gave the Westview Healthplex Masters an extra focus this winter when it’s usually slow on events.  She also observed how many swimmers from the Masters team were able to swim alongside and  help him keep pace, and how they made him smile when he probably just wanted to curl up and rest. That’s what Masters is all about, the camaraderie!

Even non-Masters swimmers participated however and club members were excited to see what was going on. Since Sundays are normally quieter days, members said they enjoyed having the extra excitement at the pool. Many hadn’t seen it so busy on Sundays ever!

In conclusion, Mike Young’s giant heart met with a giant distance swim for a very successful fundraiser for cancer research.  Not only did he achieve his original goal to make a difference for cancer research, but he made a difference in the lives of his co-workers, fellow swimmers, coaches, family and friends by his exemplary long distance “Aquathon” swim on his 42nd birthday on February 21, 2010.


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