Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Swimming with Guy

Almost eighteen years ago, Guy Vitale challenged me to an open water swimming race. It was July--the week that he turned forty-seven, and I turned sixteen. We were in Ontario, Canada on a fishing trip with a group of fathers and sons that were connected by familial relations and friendship. Our cabin was located on a lake that was littered with pine tree covered islands and random rocks above and just below the surface of the fifty-seven degree water. It was a few days into the trip when Guy suggested that we race to an island and back. He always was an avid swimmer, and I was a high school distance swimmer at the time, so the challenge seemed appropriate if not for the frigid water.

Our purpose in Canada was fishing, but kids can only sit in twelve foot fishing boats with metal bench seats for so long. On this particular day, it was decided by the adults in the group that the pre-adolescent and adolescent boys were in need of some washing. Three or four days without a bar of soap for a boy of that age is bad enough, but near constant contact with fish and warm July nights in sleeping bags zipped up tight against the whining menace of the Canadian mosquito creates the necessary conditions to prompt a man to force his son to bathe in fifty-seven degree water. In case you are wondering just how bad we smelled, it only takes an hour of exposure to fifty-seven degree water to induce hypothermia in an average sized adult.

While we were treading water and our teeth chattered against the cold, bald eagles and enormous turkey vultures circled and landed on a nearby island where we dumped the carcasses of the northern pike and walleye that we caught that morning. Luckily, the bar of soap floated, and we passed it around quickly after doing our best to wash before losing all control of our numb fingers. I was about to climb out when Guy spoke up. “Hey Mike, I’ll race you to that island.” He said and pointed to an island that didn’t seem very far away. I thought he was crazy, and as one of the necessities of the trip was alcohol, I figured he was a little drunk.

But he was serious, and so was everybody else. I was allowed the chance to restore circulation to my extremities while my dad and uncle stripped one of the aluminum fishing boats of fishing gear and threw in extra life jackets. It seemed appropriate and ridiculous at the same time that there would be a chase boat for swim that couldn’t have been more than a half mile. While I sat next to the camp fire, and Guy was in the Cabin getting his swimming suit on, I still had a glimmer of hope that he would back out. I didn’t know him as well at that time as I had the pleasure of getting to know him. If I had known what I know now about Guy Vitale, I would have known that my fate was sealed as soon as the thought formulated itself in Guy’s brain.

We raced that day. We jumped in the freezing cold water, treaded for a moment while the air returned to our lungs and set off in the direction of the island. I won the race, but I was a high school distance swimmer at the time. I am confident that if we repeated that race at any time after my competitive swimming days that Guy would have beaten me handily. On August 21st, 2010, I competed in my first triathlon in Three Rivers, Michigan. It just happened to be my first open water swimming race since my race with Guy seventeen years earlier. Three days later, my dad called to let me know that Guy had died from an extended battle with cancer. I had known he was sick, very sick in fact, and in my rational mind I knew that the prognosis was not good, but in my heart I could not believe that Guy would succumb. He was an acquaintance when we raced, a friend of my parents’, but in the following years I was lucky enough to get to know him better. I would like to say that we were friends, and in many ways he felt like an uncle to me, and I’m sure that I am not the only one to feel that way. Guy was a benefactor. It seems weird to say that, but I can’t think of a better word. He was always eager to help if he could and I can say from my own experiences with him that he was a positive force in the lives of countless people. I can’t imagine a better definition of a successful life.

Guy and his wife Andrea, through their tremendous example, raised three children who, not surprisingly, follow in their brave and confident footsteps. In what seems like the Universe or God or Fate stepping in, their son Adam returned to take over the family business about a year before Guy’s cancer was diagnosed. Their daughter, Alexis, gave birth to their first grandchild, Pierce, who had his first swim with his Grandfather in the pool that Guy swam in almost every summer day for I don’t know how long. Their youngest daughter, Kathy, works as a television news producer in Colorado, not far from the family’s vacation home.

Here we finally get to the purpose of this posting. Alexis Vitale, a thyroid cancer survivor, courageously created a charity called Hopes Song. The mission of Hopes Song is to provide services to people diagnosed with cancer. Those services include financial assistance in the form of grants as well as educational materials and a website to create an online community for people battling cancer and their families. We have all heard of Livestrong and all the walks to cure cancer, but Hopes Song is a smaller organization that fulfills a very important element in the battle against cancer. These larger organizations provide billions of dollars for research in the pursuit of a cure, but those cures may be a long way off, and for families being attacked by cancer right now, there are more immediate concerns. Some patients need constant care, which costs money, and some family members take on that care, but that takes them away from their jobs. It seems crazy that a family battling cancer should have to worry about paying the mortgage, but they do, so Hopes Song is there to help. If you haven’t been there yet, I encourage you to visit the website http://www.hopessong.org.

Up to this point, Alexis has engaged in many fundraising activities, the main course consisting of a line of clothing that she has designed herself. I have wanted to help, but anyone who has seen me dress my daughters knows that my knowledge of fashion is rudimentary at best, so I recently approached Alexis with an idea that has been fermenting in my mind since the week of Guy’s death. I am going to compete in my second triathlon in Three Rivers, Michigan and I want to do it in Guy’s honor and raise money for Hopes Song.

If I am going to do something in honor of Guy Vitale, I have to commit completely and I thought that it should also be fun. So it you want to help, here is the idea: I have about the same chances to win this triathlon as the Cubs have to win the World Series this year, but in Guy’s spirit of hard work I am committed to the effort of winning this triathlon, and I want you to bet against me. If you want to give, please send me an email to me at mikesimpson484@gmail.com, and make your bets using the following scale:
If Mike…
Finishes I will give ______
Finishes in the top fifty I will give_______
Finishes in the top twenty I will give _______
Finishes in the top ten I will give _______
Finishes in the top five I will give ______
Wins the triathlon, I will give ________
I know this isn't the most convenient or efficient way to collect pledges, so if anyone out there has the internet savvy and would like to help me create a better system, just let me know.

If you need extra information in formulating your bets, I finished 82nd out of 147 finishers last year. My time was 1:22:28 and the winner finished in 1:01:24. I have worked harder this year in preparation for the this triathlon and will continue to train almost every day until race day, which is August 20th. I also welcome any questions you might have to help you formulate your bets—just put them in the comment box, and I will write a weekly blog posting in relation to the triathlon and answer all questions as well as relate stories about Guy and the works of Hopes Song.
On a final note, as a personal commitment to Guy and his friendship to me, I plan to win the swimming portion of the triathlon. That may sound like a bold declaration, but triathletes are notoriously bad swimmers.


  1. Scoob, how many contestants do you expect this year? Around 150?

    Also, i will double my donation if you wear a speedo for the running and cycling portion of the race.

  2. I loved your story about Guy. I will give $100 if you finish in the top 50. I had to make it a bit challenging, as Guy would do. He would probably really make you sweat and say the top 20, however!
    Andrea Vitale

  3. Keep us posted on your progress! How fitting that all of us Vitale's will be in Gburg when you do this - for a family reunion and celebration of life!

    Kathy Vitale