Winter 2017 - Articles

Swimming for Change

Swimming for Change Header

Michele Walters ’97 isn’t the type of person to care about a cause bigger than herself and not take action. Instead, she swam 57 miles for 20 hours around the island of Manhattan — twice — to raise awareness and funds for children in Nepal who are orphaned, disabled or impoverished.

On July 28 and 29, 2017, Walters, 42, completed the 40 Bridges Double Manhattan Island Swim and raised more than $6,000 — nearly double her initial goal of $3,500 — for the Disabled Rehabilitation Center (DRC) Nepal. The DRC Nepal provides shelter in a familial environment for 55 children at its Care House in Gokarna, Kathmandu.

“The children come from all over the country and are mostly disabled, orphaned or come from very poor families,” Walters said. “DRC Nepal prioritizes the children living in its housing, providing educational and health opportunities (e.g., corrective surgery, wheelchair, etc.). The funds will be used for those children and some administrative costs.”

DRC Nepal’s annual operating budget is $41,500, and it receives no outside funds from the Nepalese government or other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Instead, its funding comes from volunteers, door-to-door collections, donations from tourists or Tendy Sherpa, a Nepalese mountain guide who receives donations for DRC Nepal through his trekking clients.

“For the past three years, I’ve been to Nepal, and I have been heartened and humbled by the generosity of the Nepalese people, despite their lack of resources,” Walters said. “In many parts of the country, access to basic things such as clean water, electricity, education, health and safety — all things we take for granted in the United States — are not a given.”

It was this love for the Nepalese people, combined with her love for the water, that motivated Walters to participate in the 40 Bridges swim.

Surprisingly, Walters didn’t grow up an avid swimmer. In fact, she didn’t start until she was in high school. While she didn’t start off strong — swimming at most one mile at a time — the passion for the sport was there from the start. She didn’t spend much time in the pool during her undergraduate years at Auburn, but Walters did swim on the Master’s swim team while earning her graduate degree in sociology in 2002. This motivated her to continue swimming after moving to Washington D.C. where she joined a Master’s team and fell in love with open-water swimming.

Walters’ first long-distance, open-water swim was the 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay event in Baltimore in 2007. Over the years, she incrementally built up the distance to the 7.5-mile Potomac Swim in Maryland, a 12-mile swim around Charleston, S.C., swimming from bridge to bridge in the Hudson River, for which she swam one stage totaling 15 miles that took her close to 5 hours to finish. She also competed in Stage 2 of another 8 Bridges swim in 2016. She entered the water with 14 other swimmers, but only four of them finished due to the strong current and headwind. Walters was among them. It took her more than nine hours to swim 19.8 miles. Walters’ longest swim in terms of distance prior to 40 Bridges was her solo event around Manhattan in 2015 that took seven hours and 45 minutes to complete 28.5 miles.

Michelle Walters with group

“It took several years in training just to build up to that distance,” Walters said. “Perseverance was something I became quite familiar with.”

Walters completed the 40 Bridges swim in 20 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds. She was one of six swimmers who entered and one of the four who completed it. She credits her ability to finish to her support team, which included
two kayakers — Bill Steele on the first loop and Luis Lopez on the second loop around Manhattan — paddling in
front of her and leading the way, as well as her crew members Melissa Burroughs and Ed Riley, who manned her support boat.

“Without the support from my crew and my friends and family who cheered me on along the way, there’s no way I could have finished all 57 miles,” Walters said. “This swim was brutal, and it pushed my body to its limit, but it was so worth it.”

Walters believes that a race like this isn’t about the finish line or even your finishing time; it’s all about the journey. She said she encourages anyone interested in open-water swimming to give it a shot.

“You don’t have to be the fastest swimmer or the swimmer with the most endurance to swim in open water or participate in these distance swims,” Walters said. “No matter what you do — whether it’s sports-related or something else entirely — if you’re passionate about it, do it.”

by Anna Claire Howard ’14