Jane Alt (Center) with teammates after they finished a 43-mile relay swim across Lake Michigan. Photo by Wynn Graham

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Jane Alt loves open water swimming.

But a strong stroke and fondness for solo swims between Lighthouse Beach and the Baha’i Temple would not have been sufficient to see her through to the finish of a relay that navigated a 43-mile route across Lake Michigan on Aug. 21.

It took a cause to propel Ms. Alt through a season of self-doubt and second thoughts and 24 hours of physical hardship that culminated in her standing proud on the beach in Michiana, Mich., on Aug. 22.

The pleasure of her early-morning swims had set Ms. Alt to dreaming about attempting a longer course. When she called the Coast Guard last year to inquire about the feasibility of crossing the lake, they referred her to Boston-based Swim Across America and its Chicago affiliate, Swim Across Lake Michigan. The Chicago group was poised to swim a relay in a matter of weeks.

Each SALM participant raises a minimum of $3,000 for cancer research, further reason for Ms. Alt to join. “It was a way of memorializing my sister, who died of ovarian cancer,” she says. She signed on and pledged herself to the challenge. But at the last minute SALM cancelled the event. “I was crushed,” Ms. Alt says.

She says she found it difficult to tell donors that she would not be doing the swim. She assuaged their mutual disappointment by “[telling] everyone that if at all possible, I would do it the following summer.”

But with the start of summer 2015, Ms. Alt attended the first and only meeting of the group and began to suffer the first of many misgivings. These were not mere recreational bathers, she realized. “They were all competitive swimmers,” she says, “and I just love to swim.”

It would not be the last time she asked herself, “What was I thinking?”

A professional photographer, she admits the purchase of an underwater camera at the beginning of the summer was one of the lures to adopt a training regimen. But the camera also became a distraction, as she added images of Lake Michigan to a new collection.

Then on the designated date, the last weekend in July, high winds forced a postponement of the relay. Weatherman Tom Skilling, recruited by an enthusiastic WGN newsman, lent the weight of his expertise to the decision. The following weekend slipped away as well, when one of the three boats scheduled to accompany the swimmers became unavailable.

 The last-chance date, Aug. 21, fell during the Alt family vacation. “I had an out if I wanted one,” Ms. Alt says. Besides, by Thursday, Aug. 19, the lake water temperature had plunged to 49 degrees.

“I can’t do this,” she told herself.

She changed her mind again Thursday night when her son called from Seattle to say he was flying to Chicago. She would stay behind and see him while her husband and daughter headed for the North Woods Friday morning.

In the end her son revised his plans, and Ms. Alt committed not only to swim without the support of family nearby but also to drive a lonely seven hours north in a borrowed car to meet them afterward. “I would/could stretch myself,” she says.

She arrived at the Yacht Club at Monroe Harbor before the relay start time of 7 p.m. feeling “nervous,” she says. Only 11 of the 21 swimmers showed up – and just two of the three boats. Ms. Alt was the last to get in the water. While the others all owned wetsuits, she wore a rental one she had finally bought – another symbol of the gap between her and her teammates.

But even a wetsuit did not insulate one of the first two swimmers. In short order he was hoisted into the yacht suffering from hypothermia and unable to get warm. “It was crazy,” Ms. Alt says. Some swimmers followed the plan, breaking into groups to swim for an hour before climbing back in the boat.

By the time Ms. Alt dove in, it was nearly 1:30 a.m. A stronger swimmer joined her, far outpacing her, and in the strong winds and five-foot swells, one of the boats strayed a mile and a half off course. “It was dicey,” she says. Soon winded, she says she began to tire after “probably 20 minutes.” Mindful of the comforting words of one
of the organizers onshore, she gave it her best but then settled into the boat with a blanket and pillow.

The sky was “so beautiful,” she says. “I saw five shooting stars.” She slept a bit, and when it was her turn to swim again, said, “I can’t do it.”

Yet she found the strength. This time she swam alone and at her own speed, in water that had turned surprisingly warm. She was carrying the names of people with cancer, she says, and “got in a meditative state. It was wonderful.”

In all, Ms. Alt swam three times. Most of the team swam longer and more often. “There was no complaining,” she says. “Everyone was stoic. People were there because they were touched by cancer.”

Something else had touched them, her teammates told her later: her effort, which transcended the refrain, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong.”  

The swimmers reached their destination around 4 p.m. Ironically, because the yacht was unable to enter shallow waters, they had to swim ashore to claim their victory. Though Ms. Alt’s family was absent, her Evanston friend Wynn Graham was there cheering.

Not only had they triumphed over adversity and discomfort, but they had raised $54,000 for Rush University Health Center. “The ride back to Chicago was glorious,” Ms. Alt says.

She looks forward to future swimming in the lake – but not to crossing it. “It was an adventure,” she says. “A good story. And I’d never do it again.”