My Dad, Gary Weisenthal

My Dad, Gary Weisenthal

My Dad, Gary Weisenthal

By Larry Weisenthal

My father, Gary Weisenthal, is a truly remarkable swimmer. He started competing at age 6 and, at 90, is still at it.

A year ago, he swam the annual ISHOF (International Swimming Hall of Fame) one-mile ocean race, held mainly for the college varsity teams that train at the ISHOF pool complex in Ft. Lauderdale . At age 89, he had a pretty good time (38 minutes). It was a brutally cold morning. After the race, he couldn''t find his clothes and wandered around, dripping wet, in his Speedos. He started shaking badly and was rushed to Broward General Hospital , ultimately receiving a four-vessel coronary bypass graft.

That night, I told him that, in a year, I would come again from California and we would swim the 2004 race together.

Post-operatively, he suffered a massive bleed from the stomach. It was treated with cautery via endoscopy and antidotes to Coumadin. Four weeks later, he had a repeat gastric endoscopy with biopsy. It was originally read out as only H pylori (a bacterium which causes most ulcers) gastritis. But the slides were sent to the Cleveland Clinic, which diagnosed gastric adenocarcinoma, commonly known as stomach cancer.

I immediately had him flown to California , where Dr. Anton Bilchik of the John Wayne Cancer Institute performed an 80 percent gastrectomy. Fortunately, the cancer was small, early, minimally invasive and with negative nodes.

It was a serendipitous turn of events - Without the bleed there would have been no endoscopy. Without the endoscopy the cancer would have continued to grow.

After the surgery, he was left with a very small stomach. He lost a lot of weight, but he''s happy to be able to fit into clothes last worn 20 years ago. Eventually he started to swim again and by August, he swam 10 events in the Kentucky long course masters'' championship, setting two age-group backstroke records (age 90-94).


As I watched him at the start of the 2004 ISHOF, I was shocked to note how much weight he''d lost. I could see the bones in his shoulders and upper arms. A year ago, he''d looked like a stud swimmer - strong shoulders and arms, muscular triceps and a big barrel chest. Now, he looks disconcertingly like a 90-year-old man who''s been split open from his neck down to his navel. He still has that long, continuous scar (really two separate scars which meet just below his breastbone). He has four pieces of leg vein supplying blood to his heart. And he only has 20 percent of a stomach.

And I started to worry. We had a sudden rainsquall just before the start of the race. The ocean was very rough. He had to swim against the current into breaking waves, approaching from the forequarter at a 45-degree angle, pushing him back and into shore.

A year before, he finished in 38 minutes, despite possibly having suffered a heart attack sometime during the event. This time, it took the two of us. I swam next to him the whole way, keeping him on course. It took us one hour and 49 minutes to go one mile. There were times when we swam for 30 minutes and made virtually no headway. He''d alternate freestyle and backstroke. He swallowed salt water. Having only 20% of a stomach, it filled quickly.

When 45 minutes had elapsed and we were only half way finished, I decided to use a strategy to encourage him that I had used previously in another difficult swim. "Just 400 yards more," I lied. Then, "200." Then, "100." And grimly he kept on, losing more ground, weakening every minute. When an hour and 15 minutes had gone by and he thought he had only 100 yards or so to go, a lifeguard paddled up and said, "You''ve got it made now; only 400 yards to go." I''d told him a half hour previously that he had only 400 yards to go.

We couldn''t swim straight, obviously. We''d swim way out, right into the waves, then turn and swim down the shoreline, where the waves would quickly drive us in too close; so we''d have to go out again, and on and on and on it went.

When the lifeguard told him that he still had 400 yards to go, I was sure he was going to quit. But he didn''t. He grimly put his face down and swam yet again right into the face of the waves. Right about then, I got the most awful jellyfish attack of my life. I had slimy, stinging filaments all over my torso and arms. I couldn''t get the stuff off. The more I pushed and rubbed, the more I got stung.


Finally, Dad''s freestyle and backstroke just died. We started treading water. He looked like a dying man, so I gave him a way out. "Dad, I just got a real bad Man-O-War attack, and I''m going to have to go in."

He turned to me and said, "You go in and get yourself treated. I''ll meet you at the end." And he turned into the waves again with long strokes and powerful kicks. So I went with him. Then two lifeguards paddled out to clear away three large Men-O-War in our paths.

Finally, we got past the orange buoy and he could turn into shore. To make things sadistically evil, of course, there was a rip current right at that point. He started up his freestyle one last time and clawed his way to shore.

By that time, everyone had gone home except for the race director and a reporter for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.

My Dad is a guy who did 20-mile races in Lakes Michigan and Ontario in the 1930s; a guy who was once only 1.1 seconds over Weismueller''s 18-year record in the 100 free; a former world age-group record holder in the 1500 freestyle (at age 63). When he was 52 he could still do repeat 200s (scy) on the 2:20 with hand touch open turns and no goggles, almost indefinitely.

He said this was the hardest race he''d ever been in . and the most satisfying.

I felt the same way.
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