Written by Tracy Ross | photographs by Meg Haywood Sullivan
In the still, dark moments before Alli DeFrancesco dove into the English Channel, fear eluded her.
She wasn’t afraid of the 60-degree water, the 21 miles of swimming in chop, or the jellyfish, which congeal into nerve-searing masses. She wasn’t afraid of what lurks below the Channel’s oily, predawn surface, or the freighters, like floating cities, which share the Channel waters. Alli, 25, wasn’t afraid because she’d already spent way too much time above a similarly unfathomable abyss.
She had tried the Channel before, in 2012, only to be blown out by gale-force winds. She thought of giving up, but instead trained another year—full of forced weight gain, pool laps, and hundreds of miles swimming open ocean. She persevered not because she had battled—and beaten—cancer, but because that battle had been so long, hard, and lonely. While she struggled through treatment, a close friend, her former swim coach Lauren Smith Beam, was also fighting cancer. Lauren was five months pregnant when diagnosed. She died, Alli survived.
But Alli found that post-cancer life could be a different kind of death. She says she faces the “stigma of cancer.” In her post-cancer world, people, strangers, have actually said, “Your genes must be worthless.”
Alli knows other young adults with cancer who have been stigmatized in this way. It was for them—and for Lauren—that she decided to swim the English Channel. So at 3 a.m. on August 28, 2013, she shivered on a beach in the yellow circle of a floodlight. Waving her arms, she gave the go sign. The Channel official started the clock, and Alli sliced through the water.
Ask Alli’s family if it’s crazy that she would choose to swim the Channel and they say: “It’s Alli, so no.” Yet it is out of the ordinary when you consider that in 2014 only 58 people swam the Channel successfully (and just 1,284 have done so since 1875). Many open water swimmers are heavy by design. Extra body fat insulates you from the cold. Alli, on the other hand, is five feet, 10 inches and 145 pounds, lanky bordering on skinny. Arguably her biggest training challenge was to force herself, through near-constant eating, to gain 30 pounds.
Enter “bagel intervals,” in which she would down half of a bagel sandwich every 30 minutes while watching TV. When those calories failed to bulk her up, she added heaping spoonfuls of Nutella at commercial breaks. Eventually, she gained 15 pounds. Ocean swimming came easier.
Alli grew up in San Diego water sports. In DeFrancesco family lore, she sluiced down her first water slide as a nine-month-old. Her first job was diving into her grandpa’s 10-foot-deep pool to pick leaves off the bottom. In third grade, she followed her neighbor to swim practice at the local YMCA, where she was soon winning races. The Y team eventually disbanded, but her coach, Joe Benjamin, seeing the promise of a champion sprinter in the 12-year-old, invited her to swim with his club.
For one year, before cancer first hit her family, Alli’s life felt perfect. But when she was 13, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My mom slept all the time, wore a wig even at night, fed us only black beans, rice, and broccoli. She was just really, really sick.”
Her mom’s cancer eventually went into remission, and Alli’s life returned to normal. “If you consider taking every academic, athletic, and extracurricular opportunity normal,” she says. She swam through high school, helping lead her team to multiple state championships; she took the maximum load of AP classes, and, by graduation, ranked at the top of her class. It was all leading somewhere, first to NYU, where she double majored in art history and journalism and joined the lowly Division III swim team.
Her NYU coach, Lauren, knew how to turn recreational swimmers into competitors. She had a different plan for Alli, who, due to injury, couldn’t compete for most of college. Lauren recognized leadership, and she encouraged Alli to represent NYU on their conference’s student-athlete advisory council. Alli retained hope that she would heal enough to swim in the NCAA, but her dream was thwarted when she started showing what she now knows were signs of cancer.
In her senior year, she suffered chronic sinus infections, general malaise, and a steady pain beneath her right scapula. That pain radiated like hot lava down her right arm every time she drank alcohol. She still swam. But during her last semester, the sinus infections got so bad she took herself to the ER. When she told the doctor about the alcohol-triggered burning, Alli says he told her, “You’re in college, you drink too much.” The pain continued, but she was too embarrassed to return. Her condition worsened, though she still managed to graduate in December 2008. Then she went home to San Diego to try to regain her health.
But this was Alli, whose family calls her “Miss Plan Ahead,” code for “Just try to make her sit still.” Despite her malaise, she volunteered for the religious group Young Life. Soon, her symptoms drove her back to a doctor. He seemed to pay closer attention when she described the pain radiating down her arm, examined a lump on her neck, did several tests, and took an x-ray. Afterward, Alli left for a Young Life conference 45 minutes from her parents’ home. On a bright morning in April 2009, she received a text from her mother.
It read: “The doctor called, you have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
“What’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma?” Alli asked.
“It’s cancer,” said her mom. “Come home.”
Alli began treatment the day her graduating class walked the green fields of Yankee Stadium. The first round of chemotherapy didn’t work. A second round of chemo was inconclusive, so she proceeded with a terrifying bone marrow transplant and five weeks of radiation therapy.
Back in New York, her coach, Lauren, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Before her death, she would give Alli valuable instructions. “Whatever you do, stay positive,” she said. “Continue to be Alli D.”
Even as Alli endured treatments, she applied for an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection v her new goal. For that she needed citizenship, so she began the process of securing hers—her great-grandparents were Italian. She sent her application to the Italian consulate, and waited to hear back. The postman’s arrival at 11 a.m. each day became one of the only constants in her life. “With chemo, you go in one day, come out another, never knowing when they’ll call you back to say ‘I’m sorry, we have to admit you,’ and your world changes again,” says Alli. “Yet I knew every day that the mail would come.”
In September 2010, she was released from treatment. “If you ask my doctor, she’ll say I’m in remission,” she says, “but on my insurance card it says I’m being treated for chronic lymphoma.” She went to Italy, then returned home to work at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. When Lauren died in September 2011, Alli flew to her memorial. It was then that she decided to do something to memorialize her friend and bring attention to young adult cancer. “Mention cancer to anyone and they wince,” she says. “Often you’re treated like damaged goods. I’d had cancer, was better, and wanted to show a different perspective. You say you’re going to swim the English Channel and it doesn’t require much explanation.”
Alli emailed her old coach Joe Benjamin back in San Diego, writing that she wanted to swim the Channel. Benjamin says his first reaction was, “OK…that’s kind of crazy. She was a very good sprinter,” he says, “but there are Olympians who couldn’t swim the Channel. But I never questioned the commitment of her heart, so after some thought, I said, ‘Yes, let’s go for it.’”
Alli downplays the difficulty of her training. Benjamin does not. To swim the English Channel you need to hone your endurance and acclimatize to cold water. A typical training week for Alli consisted of four 5 a.m. practices, three weekly ocean swims, and two strength-training sessions. Out in the rolling blue Pacific, she’d meet up with friends and set out on a five-mile loop.
In one monster session she swam 10 miles from San Diego to La Joya. When the waters warmed, she drove north to Lake Tahoe. To further acclimate, she endured constant cold: blasting the AC in her car, soaking in a kiddie pool full of ice water. She was eating 5,000 calories a day to gain weight. “I ate at all stoplights,” she says. In a dream she told Lauren, “I’m swimming the English Channel for you.” Lauren replied, “I know. It’s the right thing.”
Back in New York, she’d learned about First Descents. She hashtagged their motto “Out Living It” in her swim blogs. She set up a fundraising page through Team First Descents and eventually raised $3,000.
Fast forward to September 2012. Alli arrives at the Channel ready to swim, but is thwarted by the weather. At that point, she could have said, “I gave it my best.” But that’s not “Alli D.”
Returning from England, she “took a step back,” she says. Then, in November, she began training for her second round with the Channel. In late August 2013, she flew to Dover, England. This time she came alone except for one trainer and a support team of three locals recruited on Facebook. The water was ink black and a moderate 62 degrees when she dove in.
Alli shrugged off an alphabet soup of jellyfish; ignored the thought of sharks; battled 14 miles per hour winds and three- to nine-foot swells. The diesel on the water, and equilibrium disturbance from distance swimming, made her sick. Each time she ate, she vomited half of her “feed.” But she kept going, covering approximately 28 miles (the currents extend the distance) and finishing in 11 hours and 14 minutes. Thanks to her new dual citizenship, she also became the first Italian woman to swim the Channel.
In a blog post on her website, Alli wrote: “When I committed to the Channel it was to say thank you when I couldn’t say thank you enough. To Lauren, for being far more than a swim coach. To my family, who made sure I got where I needed to be. To my friends, who sat next to me in the hospital when I could not have been more ill. And to give back. For all of the young adults with cancer who are still fighting for their lives. To let them know that someone is fighting for them. To give them the strength they may not have known they had and inspiration to defy their illness.” OLI