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Swimmer parts the seas for asthmatics

For Sybil Fisher, crossing channel is one way to inspire others with disease

Sybil Fisher was lying on her back beside the pool, gasping for air. A competitive swimmer since college, she couldn't breathe and didn't understand why.

In the days that followed, doctors concluded that she had asthma, a chronic and potentially life-threatening lung disease.

Instead of quitting the sport she loved, Fisher adapted by swimming at a lower intensity but for longer distances.

Four years later, the 30-year-old North Portland resident is poised to take the ultimate test of swimming endurance ÑÊto swim solo across the English Channel. The official certifying board in England cannot confirm it, but if she succeeds she may be the first woman from Oregon to do so. (Karen Gaffney of Portland swam the channel two summers ago as part of a relay team.)

The 21-mile odyssey pits swimmers against a sea of obstacles: frigid water, strong tides, 5-foot waves, unpredictable weather and a constant flow of ferry traffic. And then there are the stinging jellyfish. More than half of those who attempt to swim the channel do not succeed.

'It's considered the hardest swim there is,' notes Portland Aquatic Club coach Andrew Soracco.

The feat of swimming nonstop for 12 hours is even harder to imagine for the 20 million Americans who have asthma. In a recent survey, 48 percent of asthmatics said it limited their ability to take part in sports and recreation.

Fisher hopes to change that.

'My mission is to educate people with asthma that you can gain greater control over your daily symptoms,' she says. 'And, if you're smart about it, you can do pretty much anything.'

Fisher has dreamed of crossing the English Channel for as long as she's been swimming. A Portland native, she first competed in the sport at age 11. She swam the 200-meter freestyle at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. But by graduation, she was burned out. 'I was tired of getting up early and smelling like chlorine all the time,' she says.

After several years away from competition, Fisher met Soracco and was persuaded to try an open-water swim. Freed from the confines of the pool, she rediscovered her love for the sport.

In July 1999, Fisher was swimming the 100-meter backstroke at a meet in Ashland. 'At first I felt tightness in my chest, like I was getting a cold,' she says. 'By the third lap, there was no air going in, and no air going out. I couldn't breathe.'

Chest pains persisted the following week. 'It felt like I had an elephant on my chest,' she says.

That's when she learned she had asthma.

'I didn't realize how much my daily life would change,' Fisher says.

Each morning, she blows into a 'peak flow meter.' The device measures her ability to push air out of her lungs, then flashes the results Ñ green, yellow or red. 'It tells me what I can and can't do that day,' she says.

Her husband, Greg, is also learning how to help with her condition.

'I am much more aware of the environmental triggers that might make her go into an attack,' he says.

For example, if he finds himself driving behind a truck, he'll purposely change lanes for her.

'Just the diesel smell can make a difference,' he explains.

Fisher is determined not to let asthma keep her from achieving her English Channel dreams.

'The fact that I have these things against me makes me that much more determined,' she says.She must squeeze her training around a full-time job. An occupational therapist at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, she gets up at 5:30 a.m. and is swimming laps by 6. On a typical morning, she will swim about 4 miles at the Columbia Pool, the equivalent of a thousand laps in a pool.

A year ago, Soracco gave her a shocking assignment: Gain fat.

Wet suits are not permitted for official channel crossings, so body fat offers the only protection from the icy waters.

'I enjoyed it for a couple of months,' she says. 'Ice cream!'

During the past year, Fisher has gained 40 pounds and increased her body fat to 30 percent.

'I'm in the best shape of my life, but you wouldn't know it by looking at me,' she moans. 'I'm tired of being fat!'

Her new diet already has passed one big test. Before she could attempt the channel crossing, Fisher had to complete a qualifying swim of at least six hours. So on a cool morning last summer, she slipped into the chilly waters of the Columbia River near Government Island.

For five-plus hours, like a salmon struggling upstream, she churned against the powerful currents.

'I couldn't watch the horizon,' she recalls, 'because I'd see myself going backward every time I'd stop to feed.'

Seven miles into the swim, she reached the turnaround Ñ a narrow, 7-foot sluice gate. Using every ounce of remaining strength, she sprinted through the gushing gap, then rode the current back downstream, completing the return trip in less than two hours.

'I designed that swim as the ultimate test,' Soracco says. 'It wasn't as long, but it might be as hard as the channel. She will not be denied.'

On a morning between Aug. 4 and 11, a specially trained boat pilot will decide if the weather conditions are right, and when they are Fisher will coat herself in body grease and enter the water in Dover, England.

The skipper will keep his 30-foot support boat alongside her. On board, Soracco will monitor her pace and health while her husband feeds her a mix of liquids and energy foods every half hour. He's rigged up his own system, attaching a bottle to surgical tubing, to comply with rules that prohibit her from touching anyone during the swim.

If the weather, tides and ferry traffic cooperate, Fisher hopes to emerge on solid ground in France 12 hours later.

'I've always wanted to swim the English Channel, but now I can do it for a bigger purpose than just myself,' she says. 'I want asthmatics to know you can reach your dreams.'