It's no wonder swimming doesn't feel the same.
Not much does for Evanston resident Kimberly Stevens since her double mastectomy three years ago. She still can't open jars or pull open heavy doors. The upper body strength just isn't there anymore.
"When I swim, I sometimes feel like an alien has taken over my body," Stevens said. "I can feel the weakness in my arms as I pull myself through the water. Probably about 90 percent of women never regain full range of motion in their arms after a double mastectomy."
Doctors told Stevens shortly after her surgery that because most of her pectoral muscles had either been drastically reconfigured or removed, she might not be able to swim again.
But Stevens, who won IHSA state championships at Hinsdale Central and Big Ten titles at Iowa, was determined to get back in the pool, much like she has been determined to keep fighting through all of the turmoil in her life.
On July 20, the 47-year-old Stevens, who now relies more on her leg and back muscles to propel her through the water, will swim in her fourth Swim Across America race in Lake Michigan off of Chicago's Ohio Street beach.
Swimmers like Stevens collect pledges to swim anywhere between a half-mile to three miles in the event. Last year, $315,000 was raised in Chicago to benefit Rush University Cancer Center.
The event, which is held in cities all across the United States and has raised more than $45 million nationwide, is particularly meaningful to Stevens as a cancer survivor herself. But she first got involved in 2008 before she was even diagnosed with breast cancer.
Initially, she was swimming for her dad and grandparents. Her grandparents both died of cancer and her dad had head and neck cancer.
"The first year I did it, it was so amazing because I noticed that everyone was there for someone," Stevens said. "There was this little 6-year-old girl who was going to swim in the lake for her grandma. I thought that was so brave of her and that really inspired me."
Stevens is quite an inspiration herself. But it's not just because she's dealt with her own cancer, as well as the deaths of family members to cancer.
Sadly, there have been other setbacks and tragedies in her life.
Around the same time she discovered lumps in her breast, she was involved in a serious car accident that did major damage to her back. All the while, she's faced heartbreak and extraordinary challenges with two of her three children, who were born with an extremely rare liver disorder called Citrullinemia.
Her oldest son Braden died when he was 15 days old. He would be 21 years old now. Stevens' 19-year-old daughter Torrey was also born with Citrullinemia and was given a dire prognosis. But she received a liver transplant as a child, and although she has lived with many challenges, she is now thriving in college.
Youngest son Daniel is 17.
"It's certainly been a journey. It's been a lot (to overcome)," Stevens said. "But people who know me know that I've always been really determined and I've always been a fighter. I think being a swimmer kind of taught me that. Swimming is all about perseverance, getting through those six-hour practices. If you persevere long enough, you conquer."
Years ago, Stevens conquered by winning. She helped Hinsdale Central win four straight IHSA state titles before she graduated in 1983. And she was a Big Ten champion (100 free, 200 free) and a Big Ten record holder (200 free) and a two-time all-American before graduating from Iowa in 1988.
But now, even though she still competes in adult amateur competitions, the conquests are measured differently.
"Before it used to be all about winning. Now it's about getting there and the support system that we all need to get through the process," said Stevens, who has plenty of people cheering for her progress.
She wears a pink (cancer survivor) swim cap that sports the Iowa Hawkeye logo. It was given to her by Team Hawkeye teammates, former swimmers at Iowa who swim together each year in Chicago's Swim Across America event.
"I've always loved swimming, but it's also become very cathartic for me," Stevens said. "It helps me to be in the water and to know that I can still be strong. And it's helped to be around so many supportive people. It's been the difference between giving up and moving forward."
To donate: If you would like to donate to Kimberly Stevens (or Team Hawkeye) for the Swim Across America event in Chicago on July 20, there are various ways to do so.
You can visit www.swimacrossamerica.org, click "Donate" and search for Stevens by name or search for Team Hawkeye.
You can contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can mail a donation to: Swim Across America, 47 West Polk Street, Suite 100-561, Chicago, IL 60605. Mark the donation for Kimberly Stevens or Team Hawkeye. All donations are tax-deductible.
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