On May 15, 2009, Alli DeFrancesco was receiving her first dose of chemotherapy instead of walking with her NYU graduating class. That day, her NYU swim coach, Lauren Beam, who had been diagnosed herself with stage 4 colon cancer a month prior, told her, “Don’t hang onto what the doctors tell you … Whatever you do, stay positive.” Nearly two and a half years later, after losing Beam to the cancer, DeFrancesco was on a flight back to San Diego, returning from Beam’s funeral, when she felt an overpowering need to do something positive and inspiring. On that plane, she decided to swim the English Channel–for Beam, for herself, and for the organization First Descents.
DeFrancesco, who has been swimming competitively since age 10, has now been in remission for two and a half years. Her training is well underway, with the voice of Beam’s encouragement in her head every morning, telling her to “cut the crap” and get out there.
When you were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, what helped you stay strong and ultimately beat the cancer? When I got the news of my illness, I was volunteering as a camp counselor at a Young Life retreat where the theme was “Unstoppable.” That theme of resilient courage and faith kept me strong through my illness and now. Lauren, my college coach, offered me similar advice: To stay positive and “be you, Alli D.” The simplest words could not have been more relevant. Staring at blank hospital walls for weeks at a time, I was fighting for myself, fighting for Alli D. Ironically enough, my blood type is also B+. When I was finally released from my bone marrow transplant, I got a Picasso illustration of a dove tattooed on my arm to serve as a constant reminder.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when it comes to training and ultimately completing your goal? My inspiration comes from the very real fact that I could very easily be back in the hospital or worse. How Lauren lost her life [after a two and a half year battle with colon cancer] was a roll of the die and how deeply thankful I am to her for being such a force of strength in my life is something I’ll never be able to fully express. In the initial months of my training, when all I really wanted to do was hit snooze and skip practice, I could hear her voice saying, “Cut the crap, get out of bed, you said you’re going to do this, so do it…” I couldn’t have asked for better inspiration.
Why the English Channel? I wanted to do something recognized as universally challenging as cancer, but also within my means. You mention cancer to anyone on the street and they wince. Hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t affected by it. You mention the English Channel to that same person and, most likely, you won’t have to offer too much 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. What I didn’t know then, however, were the many similarities between training for such an event and battling cancer. Taking a risk, committing to a plan, preparing for the unknown, knowing the possibilities, and using all your energy to fight for the best outcome. One doesn’t just wake up and swim the English Channel, and similarly, a cure for cancer doesn’t come overnight.
What is your training regimen like? At most, I train 55 miles a week. I’m in the water 6 days a week, splitting the distance between the pool and open water. Two to three days a week, I spend an additional hour doing strength training and PT in the gym with my athletic trainer, Brian Finn. This being my second year at it, I have made a greater attempt to embrace the cold. That means driving with the AC on, swimming through the winter, refusing wetsuits, taking cold showers, and eating anything that’s not nailed down. I’ve even bought a kiddie pool to fill with ice water and soak in; cow troughs are also common.
What has been one (or a few) of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far while training to swim the English Channel? Self-awareness of what your body is trying to tell you is a huge part of my training to swim the English Channel. Trying to put on weight healthily (in order to withstand the cold) while training intensively has not been easy. Recognizing and avoiding certain foods that have greater glycemic indexes or a higher percentage of inflammatory agents, so that you can power through one day, recover, and do it again the next day, is vital. My goal is to swim the English Channel, not to create or extenuate any health issues. As with most athletes, I can be stubborn and my own worst enemy. Injuries and illnesses aren’t worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a complete racehorse, but I spend enough time at the doctor as it is and at the end of the day, it’s just swimming. I’m extremely fortunate to be healthy and doing what I love.
What does First Descents mean to you, and why have you chosen to raise funds for First Descents? When Lauren passed away, I was struggling with the idea that I had become “that cancer patient.” One day I ran ten miles and the next I had lost my hair, control of my body, much of my short-term memory and with that, my identity. Doctors had told me to go home and be “normal,” but that was the last thing I could relate to.
Lauren’s passing was a wake-up call that I had been blessed with the unique opportunity to take a negative series of events and do something momentously positive. In reality, my hair would grow back and I began to get excited about the little ways in which I had learned so much about myself through my adversity. The Channel would be one more way to challenge myself and in turn, get myself outside and back on my feet.
First Descents is a non-profit that provides a platform for other young adults like myself to do just that: to defy their illnesses and regain their lives through outdoor adventures. As I’ve already explained, it’s a cause that is so personal to me, and not easy to come to. Lauren and I were both seemingly healthy young adults, visiting the doctors regularly (she was five months pregnant; I had persistent sinus infections) and it took almost a year for the cancer to be discovered from what I was ultimately told were “classic signs.” Cancer was not a thought on our doctor’s minds and after three years of battling for my life, it took the tragedy of her passing for me to start living again. First Descents offers all of that without the tragedy, only positive encouragement and real experiences, and the biggest reminder that they’re not alone.
What is the meaning behind #outlivingit? In life, there are choices and there are obstacles. Unfortunately, life gave me cancer, but I have made the choice to swim the English Channel and draw attention to the fact that young adult cancer does happen, but Survivorship is where we can help. That is #OutLivingIt. Taking communal adversity and channeling resources to promote Survivorship in the face of mortality. Not wasting time or excuses, but acting now, believing in the impossible and that all of us have a bright future.
What has blogging your journey added to your training experience? Writing has always been one of my passions and in recent years, blogging has become the new journal, albeit inherently in the public domain rather than kept under a pillow. Naturally, I enjoy it. Someone once told me that the journey leading up to England is the best part and social media offers the opportunity to capture it live. The difficult part is becoming comfortable [with] over-sharing and finding time to do so, balancing a full-time work schedule with training and everything else in life. However, when it works, blogs serve as a forum to share training notes, preferred equipment, feeding techniques, etc. while also allowing friends and family to express their support.
What advice would you give triathletes when it comes to open water swimming? Consistency and safety. The best swimmers are in the water six days a week, some days more than once. It is important to be in the water as much as possible in order to retain a feel. However, use your best judgment. For example, don’t swim at dawn, at dusk, or by yourself. Practice how you intend to compete, including preparation of feeds, use of specific equipment and stroke technique at varying speeds. If you have fears of open water, your comfort level in the water will increase over time; I promise. And in any event, focus on your breathing and remain calm. Harnessing the power of your mind can be one of your strongest skills.
As August approaches, how are you feeling? I’m getting anxious and excited, checking in with my open water swimming friends and making sure that I’ve done all I can do while counting the days until I leave for England again. I’m feeling strong, healthy, like the kid on the kickball team begging, “Put me in, coach!” Oh wait, that kid was me.