Former NYU swimmer, cancer survivor, conquers English Channel
September 26, 2013
Allison “Alli” DeFrancesco swam the English Channel last month in 11 hours and 14 minutes. For the former NYU swimmer, the trip was only more difficult as her time in the water passed.
“I got violently ill the last three hours, and found myself crying into my goggles,” the 25-year-old said.
But DeFrancesco did not think about giving up — not with the memory of former swim coach Lauren Kyle Beam in her mind.
“Lauren was my main source of motivation,” DeFrancesco said. “Lauren would be in the back of my head saying, ‘Come on now, you said you were going to do this…’”
Beam was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009. Three weeks later, DeFrancesco received news that she herself had Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. The art history major graduated a semester early, returning home to North County, San Diego for treatment. DeFrancesco eventually received a successful bone marrow transplant. Unfortunat-ely, Beam succumbed to her cancer in September, 2011.
DeFrancesco, now an assistant registrar at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, recalls her former coach’s amazing ability to tap into the potential of every member of the swim team — a team of nearly forty girls from all over the country with different athletic backgrounds.
“She gave us not only the freedom, but the push to succeed in both worlds, which was essential to the NYU experience,” DeFrancesco said. “And through it all, she never stopped coaching.”
On her flight back to San Diego from Beam’s funeral service, DeFrancesco decided to swim the English Channel, “knowing full well what it’s like to be young, seemingly healthy and yet fighting for your life,” she said.
“I felt I had to do something,” she said. “I had to turn a negative into a positive.”
Ultimately, conquering the English Channel was an opportunity for DeFrancesco, a dual Italian and United States citizen, to do something recognized as universally challenging but also within her means.
“You mention cancer to anyone on the street and they wince,” she said. “You mention the English Channel to that same person and, most likely, you won’t have to offer too much of an explanation. With the ocean at my door, an A-team of coaches assembled and an extensive swimming background, it seemed like the obvious choice.”
DeFrancesco trained at La Jolla Cove in San Diego during her preparations for the swim. There, she found herself a support group of fellow Channel swimmers.
“Everyone was eager to share what worked for them and what didn’t, from boat pilots to diet tricks,” she said. “In the midst of a very solitary sport, I soon found myself surrounded by more positive encouragement than I had ever felt, even through cancer.”
To DeFrancesco, there are many similarities between training for the swim and battling cancer. These include taking a risk, committing to a plan and preparing for the unknown.
“Both experiences are unique to the individual, require a certain amount of research and preparedness, a leap of faith and a respect for life,” DeFrancesco said. “One doesn’t just wake up and swim the English Channel and, similarly, a cure for cancer doesn’t come overnight.”
Kenneth Lim is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]