PORTLAND — After her brother died of a heart attack at 34, Westbrook resident Pat Gallant-Charette decided something needed to be done to raise awareness for heart health.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. With her event, “Swim for your Heart,” Charette hopes to use Valentine’s Day to educate people around the world about heart health.
Her brother’s death in 1997 and the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen, presumably from a heart-related issue (an official cause of death was never released), led Charette to call on the world swim community for action.
“My original post to the swim community asked them to join me in swimming for a cause by making a donation to their favorite heart charity on Feb. 14,” she said.
When she began “Swim for your Heart” it only caught on in a few countries and was very slow to build steam in the U.S. Initial lack of response, Charette believes, was due to the lack of media coverage.
“I didn’t know how to get attention through the media,” she said. “Someone who was participating in Mexico said ‘Why don’t you put it on Facebook?’ When I did put it on Facebook, it went viral; now we have 25 countries participating and several U.S. states.”
“Swim for your Heart” is not a formally organized event. People around the state can participate in their local pools – or in a lake, river or the ocean if they are brave enough to take the chilly plunge.
“The whole thought is to engage the community around swimming activities or pool activities around heart health,” said Gail Crocker, a nurse at Maine Medical Center and manager of the Turning Point Health Program.
Eight local pools, including Reiche; the Portland, Freeport and Falmouth YMCAs; Cape Elizabeth, and South Portland will be holding programs for “Swim for your Heart.” Particpants can visit each pool’s website for more information on programming.
Several local swim teams will also be participating with their own swim-a-thons. One team will put parents in the pool with students as coaches; parents are free to swim as much or as little as they want, but have to crack open their wallets in order to get out.
On Feb. 14 the staff of the Turning Point Health Program will partner with the Maine Heart Center to offer free blood pressure and cholesterol screenings at the pools.
In addition to poolside health screenings and different swim programs on Feb. 14, on Feb. 11 Crocker and her son, Olympic Gold Medalist Ian Crocker, will make the rounds to five local pools to talk to children about heart health and motivate them to keep swimming.
“Kids will be able to put on Ian’s medal and their parents are free to take pictures,” Crocker said.
The ultimate goal for Charette is to turn “Swim for your Heart” into an American Heart Association-sponsored event.
“I hope that the American Heart Association will give us their stamp of approval and help promote this,” she said. “February is their annual heart month, but it would be nice to see them get behind this because it would carry more clout with heart associations around the world. I think America needs to lead the way and make this a worldwide event.”
On Feb. 14 Charette will visit all of the local pools, bringing her bathing suit along for the ride. At age 61, she has had an impressive swim career, swimming the English Channel and being the oldest woman ever to make the 21-mile swim from Catalina Island to mainland California.
“I was a bit naive when I first started swimming,” she said. “I thought once I hit 50 it was all downhill, but when I swam Catalina at age 60 I was the oldest woman to do it. It is important for people to know they can lead a nice, strong, healthy life even in their 60s.
“It is frustrating to see that heart disease is not getting the publicity it needs,” she continued. “This is my bit trying to promote this and raise awareness.”