The Olympic motto is "Swifter, Higher, Stronger," which begs the question: Swifter, higher and stronger than what? Swifter than Michael Phelps? Higher than LeBron James? Stronger than Amanda Mercer?
Mercer is a 44-year-old mother of two who decided last year that she and her friends would set a world record. Six women would swim the English Channel, as a relay team, faster than any six women ever have. The record is 18 hours, 59 minutes. They hope to break it during the London Olympics.
The goal seemed preposterous -- none of the women has ever been a professional athlete, and all have jobs or children or both. But Mercer believed they could do it, and she had a worthy cause in mind. Her friend and neighbor Bob Schoeni, a University of Michigan professor, had been swimming in the ocean off the coast of Australia in 2008 when he felt his hands cramp. Schoeni was soon diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, and robs people of their ability to control their muscles. It is fatal. Schoeni continues to battle it, but there is no cure. Mercer wanted to use the relay to raise money for ALS research -- and to honor her friend, in an ocean on the other side of the world. He couldn't swim as swiftly as he had, but she could.
Then, this March, as she trained to fight one deadly disease, Mercer was hit with another: Breast cancer. She had to undergo treatment quickly. Her first thoughts were about her Channel swim. Could she still do it? She wasn't sure. A week after her diagnosis, her surgeon told her the doctors all agreed: None of us think that you can swim the channel.
"That was the final determining factor," Mercer said, "that I was going to do it, no matter what."
For the last four months, Mercer has tried to coax the best out of her body at its worst moments. She has set her sights on a world record when she did not even want to eat. She has dreamed of powering her way through the ocean when she could barely get out of bed.
Like many other competitive swimmers, Mercer shaved her head, but she did it because her hair was going to fall out anyway. The first time she swam after chemotherapy, she thought "How can I possibly do this? There is no way." From there it got worse. The second round of chemo was more brutal than the first, and the third was so bad that "I literally felt like it was going to kill me." She would not leave her house for 9 to 12 days.
Still, she pushes, for the same reason that every Olympian pushed at one point in their lives. Nobody plays a sport for the first time thinking about gold medals or endorsements. We compete to get the best out of ourselves.
Doctors sped up her treatment schedule so she could still swim the Channel. When it is time to work out now, "I don't really want to go, but I know when I swim I'll feel better," Mercer said. "Swimming makes me feel more normal."
The women will be in London this week, a year after they decided to do it, and four months after Mercer was told she could not. The women's primary purpose remains: To raise money for ALS research. You can contribute online at channelforALS.org. And Mercer, ever the competitor, says "I think we're still going for the record." But for Mercer, just jumping in the water will be an extraordinary achievement.
Hype, politics and controversy surround the Olympics and occasionally threaten to suffocate them. Still, the Games thrive, and maybe this is why: More than any other major sporting event, the Olympics are about participating, not just winning.
Somewhere in London this summer, an Olympian will finish in last place and feel unchained joy, just for the privilege of representing his country in the Olympics. And somewhere between England and France, a 44-year-old former Michigan State swimming captain will prove her doctors wrong by swimming an English Channel relay. She wanted to fight one disease and she ended up fighting two. She wanted to honor her friend, but she will also honor herself.