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Two Local Women Swim 32-Mile Relay Across Lake George In Support Of Polio Awareness

Louise Rourke, along with friend and long-distance swimmer, Bridget Simpson, completed the incredible feat back in July. Here's their story.

(from left) swimmer Louise Rourke; Don McPherson, the member of Rotary International, who Louise first called about doing the swim; Doug Ford, the Rotarian for District 7190 in charge of the Global Polio Eradication Campaign; and long-distance swimmer Bridget Simpson. (Lisa Ford)

Several years ago, I became an avid fan of NBC’s obstacle-course competition show, American Ninja Warrior. I was captivated by the contestants’ strength and endurance as they breezed through a grueling gauntlet of obstacles. I watched for two full hours as the contestants, who represented a wide range of ages, lifestyles and athletic backgrounds, each took a spin on the course. My all-time favorite American Ninja Warrior moment was when Kacy Catanzaro, a 24-year-old, five-foot-tall gymnast affectionately known as “Mighty Kacy” to her fans, became the first woman to beat the infamous Warped Wall (a 14-foot-tall curved ramp that contestants must traverse to pass the first elimination round). I remember jumping off the couch, clapping and shouting, as Catanzaro celebrated her win onscreen. Not only had she made history as the show’s first female competitor to scale the dreaded wall and complete the qualifying course, but she’d also shattered, at least in my mind, the notion that women, especially those of petite stature, are too small to perform incredible athletic feats. Although I’m not sure I’ll ever have the guts to attempt an extreme obstacle course on national television, Catanzaro’s victory motivated me to make fitness a higher priority in my life. Later that year, I ran my first 5k race right here in Saratoga. It’s been said that a little inspiration goes a long way, and I’m inclined to agree.

I recently had the privilege of chatting with another remarkable female athlete whose dedication and courage are sure to inspire. This past July, 64-year-old Queensbury native, Louise Rourke, partook in a 32-mile relay swim from Lake George Village to Diane’s Rock in Ticonderoga alongside her friend and training partner, distance swimmer Bridget Simpson. Although the pair’s endeavor is impressive on its own, its intended purpose of raising awareness and funds for the treatment of polio merits even greater admiration. Diagnosed with the virus when she was just six months old (making her the youngest polio patient in New York State at that time), Rourke has since undergone multiple corrective surgeries, and wore a metal leg brace throughout her childhood to combat the nerve degeneration and subsequent paralysis in her right leg. Thanks to her parents’ tireless research, Rourke underwent an operation (which was among the first of its kind in the US) at New York University Medical Center that significantly reduced the difference in length between her two legs. During the procedure, which was carefully timed to accommodate any adolescent growth spurt, doctors “turned back” the growth of Rourke’s left leg “so that the right leg could catch up.” While her right leg was once almost two inches shorter than her left, the difference is now less than half an inch.

Louise Rourke and her husband, John, as they arrived by motorboat to the Steamboat Docks in Lake George Village at 6am the morning of the swim. (Julie deBoer)

Despite the challenges associated with her paralysis, Rourke was determined to pursue an active and healthy lifestyle. Her interest in swimming developed during her childhood summers, which were spent at her family’s vacation home at the southern end of Lake George. She frequently relied on “water therapy” (which involved stretching her right leg in a warm bath) as a form of exercise, and performed the treatment in the lake during warmer months. “I felt free and more graceful in the water,” Rourke says. “I wasn’t constantly feeling weighed down and uncomfortable by that sweaty brace.” Although she never swam competitively, Rourke carried her love of the sport into adulthood, spending several hours swimming laps at the Saratoga YMCA each day (where she also prepared for the Lake George swim, with Simpson’s encouragement).

Rourke had heard about Simpson’s long-distance swimming feats (she solo-swam the length of Lake George in 2017) and met her by chance at a public beach in Ticonderoga. After swimming together, the two became fast friends, as Simpson coached Rourke and suggested different swimming techniques, such as utilizing a buoy or fins, to help her swim longer distances. The two trained together in Lake George well into September, and Simpson encouraged Rourke to consider her own long-distance swim on Lake George. Although she had her reservations at first, Rourke soon warmed to the idea. “Somebody I knew had done it and believed in me in that way,” says Rourke. “Bridget had planted the seed.”

In addition to Simpson’s unwavering support, another source of inspiration from Rourke’s childhood ultimately convinced her to pursue the swim. In 1958, when Rourke was four years old, Diane Struble became the first person to complete the swim that Rourke was considering. “I remember thinking how awesome that was,” she says. Rourke and Simpson decided to structure the swim as a relay, where they would take turns swimming five- to six-mile lengths until they reached the north shore. Once the lake water grew too cold for swimming, Rourke moved back to the Saratoga YMCA, where she increased her daily swimming distance from one mile to five. Some days, she would swim up to ten miles, in five-mile increments. By this point, Rourke decided that the relay swim would be dedicated to raising awareness and money for the eradication of polio. (It’s worth noting that American medical researcher Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine and by 1955, it was administered throughout the US. By 1979, the virus was eradicated here—but it still affects many in countries that don’t have access to the vaccine.)

Rourke approached her physical training with unrivaled bravery and determination. But the swim’s logistics required careful planning and were daunting for her to consider. For example, the swimmers needed volunteer boaters to follow them throughout their journey for safety reasons. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Rourke. “I am so fortunate to have such supportive friends.” Among the volunteers was Rourke’s husband, who drove the couple’s boat alongside her as she swam, and her son, who traveled from his home in Boulder, CO, to assist. He set up a tracker so that others would be able to view Rourke and Simpson’s progress remotely. Also, through the support of a Rotary International member at Rourke’s church, the organization publicized the swim and has since taken up the polio cause.

After closely monitoring the weather, Rourke and Simpson began their swim at 6:30am on July 30. They each swam a six-mile distance to start, then alternated five-mile shifts (with one exception: Rourke swam the final quarter mile alongside Simpson) until they reached Diane’s Rock (named for Struble) in Ticonderoga at approximately 3am the following morning. “It was a culmination of life experiences,” Rourke says. Throughout her swim, she thought of polio’s global consequences and her motivation to help those who don’t have the medical care she fortunately received.

Since her big swim, Rourke’s become a bit of a local celebrity: People recognize her in public and share their reasons why she’s inspired them. “Everybody has a struggle of their own,” Rourke says, and she’s glad to have provided others with the same motivation that she got from Simpson and Struble. She’s also continued to fight the global scourge that is polio, but says she hopes that people see beyond it: “We need to focus on abilities, not disabilities.”

If you’re looking to do your own, lengthy swim in support of a good cause—or just want to support it from home—you can donate to a variety of organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International, many of which will match or double your donations. Locally, a celebratory dinner honoring Rourke and Simpson for their accomplishment will be held at the Lake George Marriott on September 14. All proceeds will go towards funding the eradication of polio, and the Gates Foundation is partnering with Rotary International to match each donation two to one. Rourke’s goal is to raise $32,000, the equivalent of $1000 per mile she and Simpson swam, and reservations to the fundraiser can be made online through September 1. For more information about the upcoming event, click here.

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Sarah Midani

Sarah Midani is a senior at Siena College, completing her BA in English. She's worked as an Editorial Assistant at saratoga living and is now a Contributing Writer.

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