WESTBROOK – An informal effort to raise money for heart health research and education, started last year by a Westbrook woman, has blossomed into a worldwide event scheduled for Valentine’s Day.

Participation in Swim for Your Heart Feb. 14 has grown exponentially since last year, said the event’s founder, Pat Gallant-Charette, who drew international acclaim after swimming the English Channel last summer.

“I’m just so overwhelmed by it,” Gallant-Charette said of the interest this week, taking a practice break at the Davan Pool in Westbrook. Davan is one of eight pools in the greater Portland area that will be taking part in the event. The others are in Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, New Gloucester and Freeport.

Andy McBrady, assistant to the director of community services at the Westbrook Community Center in the Fred C. Wescott Building, said Gallant-Charette contacted him directly to ask if swimmers could use the Davan Pool for this year’s event, and pool officials were happy to oblige.

“If it comes from Pat, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

On Valentine’s Day, swimmers here will be joining thousands more nationwide and in 24 other countries around the world, all raising money in individual swimathon events. Swimmers are getting support from local health clubs, hospitals and cardiac health associations, as well.

Gallant-Charette, a registered nurse at the Barron Center in Portland, said there is no one organization that will benefit. Participants are encouraged to raise pledges on their own. Those who raise money, she said, can donate the funds directly to local cardiac care centers, or organizations such as the American Heart Association.

On Feb. 14, the Davan pool will open at 5:30 a.m. and stay open until 9 p.m. All day, McBrady said, the pool will be free to use. There will be themed swimming events with children and their parents, and members of the Westbrook and Gorham high school swim teams will also be on hand.

“It’s going to be open to everyone,” he said.

In addition, on the Saturday before the event, Feb. 11, swimming Olympic gold medalist Ian Crocker, a Cherverus High School graduate, will be at the pool from 12:30-1:30 p.m. to help promote the event, McBrady said.

Gallant-Charette came up with the idea last year, shortly after learning of the death of American long-distance swimmer Fran Crippen during an open-water swimming event on Oct. 23, 2010. Ultimately, the cause of death was ruled as drowning and heat exhaustion, though initial speculation was that he had suffered a heart attack.

Gallant-Charette said the event called to mind the death of her brother, Robbie, who died in 1997 of a heart attack at age 34, even though he himself was an accomplished swimmer and lived a healthy lifestyle. His death, she said, was part of what inspired her to become a marathon swimmer, and she wanted to create an event among swimmers that put a spotlight on heart health and heart disease.

“I was thinking, maybe we can do something as a community,” she said.

So she began reaching out, in a very informal effort, contacting friends and fellow swimmers. That effort, on Valentine’s Day in 2011, got hundreds of swimmers involved worldwide. This year, Gallant-Charette said, she is using her blog, Facebook, and other social networking tools to really get the word out. In addition to individual swimmers, Gallant-Charette said, she was able to contact swim clubs and other organizations.

“Facebook really brought it to another level,” she said.

Her notoriety didn’t hurt, either.

Last summer, at age 60, Gallant-Charette became the oldest American woman to swim across the English Channel, making international news and earning a big spotlight. Gallant-Charette said she purposely did not use the attention to plug the event, but said her accomplishment certainly helped in drawing in other supporters.

Gallant-Charette said the event is also receiving praise from the American Heart Association and local cardiac care centers, such as Turning Point Cardiac Rehabilitation, a program at Maine Medical Center.

“They love the concept, because it’s bringing about a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

Gail Crocker, a registered nurse and coordinator at Turning Point, and mother of Ian Crocker, said she first heard about the event through Maine Medical, and jumped at the opportunity to help.

“What Pat has accomplished is really an incredible, grassroots thing,” she said.

Crocker said she and the hospital worked to get local pools involved, and will be offering free blood pressure and cholesterol screenings at the local events. They will also pass out literature educating people about heart-healthy lifestyles. So often, Crocker said, people with other medical conditions don’t realize how much exercise can help them.

“That is one of the things they’ve stopped doing, or have never done,” Crocker said.

Brenda Vitali, communications director at the Maine office of the American Heart Association, said the association participates in a number of educational and fundraising events every year, but Swim for Your Heart Feb. 14 is unlike anything the association has done before.

“This is really the first event that we’ve been associated with that involves swimming,” she said.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in America, worse than prostate cancer and breast cancer, Vitali said. While there have been great strides in research, Vitali said, much of that has been on heart disease in men. The common – and incorrect – perception, she said, is that it’s not as dangerous to women.

“It actually takes the lives of more women than all cancers combined,” she said.

Gallant-Charette said she hopes the event will raise funds worldwide for research, but money is only part of the goal. She also hopes to see more awareness of heart disease, and the need for people to adopt healthier lifestyles to help combat it.

“For me, the educational part of it is very important,” she said.

Before a training session at Davan Pool last week, long-distance
swimmer Pat Gallant-Charette talks with Andy McBrady, assistant to
the director of Westbrook Community Services, about the upcoming
Swim for Your Heart fundraising event on Feb. 14. (Photo by Rich
Obrey)


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