Kyle Poland ’02 swims the English Channel to fight cancer
August 8, 2013 By Mariel Smith
who inspired his English Channel swim fundraiser.
Swimming the English Channel is an accomplishment of which to be exceedingly proud, and Kyle Poland ’02, who successfully made the crossing on August 1, certainly is. But his swim means more than simply being added to the list of elite athletes who make the 21-mile open water journey—it means saving lives by funding research on a rare form of cancer.
How does an elite endurance athlete decide to swim the English Channel for cancer? The answer is simple: her name is Diana Davis.
Now in her early 70's, Diana has battled cancer and leukemia for years, staving off five reoccurrences of the disease despite being deemed too old to receive treatment. Most recently, she has been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of cancer that cancer survivors often develop as a result of extended chemotherapy treatments.
"She's muscled her way out of hospice twice, and takes blood transfusions and platelets daily," says Poland's wife, Stephanie, who has been with him for every step of the Channel swim. "She's the happiest, silliest, funniest person; you'd never know she was a terminal cancer patient by looking at her. She's very inspiring."
Kyle met Diana through a mutual friend, Karen Cosgrove, the founder of Miles That Matter, an organization that helps people raise money for various causes. He approached Cosgrove knowing he wanted his swim to be something bigger than himself. Cosgrove immediately suggested that his swim raise money for MDS, creating a legacy donation on behalf of Diana—an idea Kyle embraced wholeheartedly.
"Diana's been fighting cancer for over 10 years," explains Kyle. "As of today she's in hospice and not doing well. Swimming the English Channel isn't something most people would do. My feeling though, is that there are plenty of people, like Diana, who would give anything to be healthy enough to try."
We know that MDS is becoming more prevalent," Stephanie adds. "We want to find a way to make sure that other people who suffer from it can be treated."
Thus began the arduous two-year-long journey toward Dover, England, where Kyle would dive into mid-50-degree ocean water and swim for just over 11 hours to the shore of France.
On the day of the swim, all of Poland's family gathered in Springboro, Ohio, for a live-tracking party.
"We brought a bunch of snacks and magazines because we thought we were going to be bored," says Stephanie. "But we didn't do anything but stare at a little triangle on our screens all day."
Because Kyle swam at 6:40 a.m. Dover time, his family was awake at 1:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time to follow the swim. They stayed up through the morning hours until he finished 11 hours later.
"The first 80 percent of the swim went relatively smoothly," Kyle says, despite sustaining six jellyfish stings, including one across the face. "The final 20 percent was truly the hardest effort I've ever had to give. The wind had picked up and it felt like I was getting bounced around inside a washing machine for an hour and a half.
"During the final leg through the washing machine, I give a lot of credit to my crew," he adds, "because there were a handful of times where it just seemed like I couldn't go any further and they really encouraged me to keep going."
Centre was never far from Poland's thoughts during the arduous swim, especially when he considered how Centre helped him get where he is today.
"I thought a lot about that question while I was swimming," he says. "And in some ways it's a chicken and egg sort of question. Is Centre responsible for fostering success in people, or are success-driven people attracted to Centre? And given those options, I would say Centre, with all of its history of successes, brings certain types of goal-oriented people who understand that to be successful you have to be open to the possibility of failing."
While failure was certainly a possibility for Kyle, success ruled the day when he stepped onto the French coast late that afternoon. Hearing the news of his successful finish was an intensely emotional moment for his family.
"The only thing I can compare it to is what it's like waiting for your first baby to come," Stephanie says. "You're exhausted, sleep-deprived, and then you feel more emotion than you've ever felt in your life. It was huge—like an A-bomb."
Kyle's mother Bettie Poland ’76 was thankful for the ability to track the swim live online.
"When you're looking at his progress based on a tiny, fraction-of-an-inch teal-colored triangle, it's a little disconcerting and at times, tedious. But that's all we could do," she says. "It's wonderful that we live in a time when we could do this. A few years ago, he would've been out there on his own and we wouldn't have known anything for hours and hours."
Ultimately, parents Bettie and Tom Poland ’75 feel an overwhelming sense of relief.
"There's joy and pride, and so much relief," says Tom. "The hardest part was watching the final leg of his swim. I kept thinking 'you're less than an inch away—come on!' I know that last mile to shore has some of the roughest water of the whole swim, but Diana Davis was the fuel that kept him going."
Thus far, Kyle's swim has raised almost $25,000. To find out about donating to Kyle's cause, click here.
Centre College, founded in 1819, offers its students a world of opportunities, highlighted by the nation's premier study abroad program and a faculty ranked #5 in the nation for "Best Undergraduate Teaching" at a liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report. Centre graduates enjoy extraordinary success, with entrance to top graduate and professional schools, prestigious fellowships for further study abroad (Rhodes, Rotary, Fulbright), and rewarding jobs (on average, 97 percent are employed or in advanced study within 10 months of graduation).