How Her Father’s Fight With Pancreatic Cancer Inspired This Olympian’s Historic Swim

Elizabeth Beisel

Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel spoke to us about her new historic undertaking.

Some time this month, after Hurricane Larry dissipates and the waters quiet in the Northeast, Elizabeth Beisel will attempt to do something no other woman has done before. She’ll wake early, plunge into the cold water off Point Judith in Rhode Island, and swim 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) in the open ocean to Block Island. 

For most of us, that task would be impossible. But Beisel is an accomplished swimmer, a two-time Olympic medalist who began training for the long journey back in February — two months after her father was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. 

The Beisels were gathered around the dining table on Christmas Day, ready for dinner, when Ted Beisel, an active 70-year-old, who hiked often and just months earlier had helped Elizabeth install a roof on her new house, broke the news. Doctors had told him and his wife, Joanie, that the average life expectancy for people with his condition was between 21 months and 28 months. 

“My brother and I ran outside, held each other, and cried,” said Elizabeth, 29. “It really just shook our world.”

Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is a scourge on the body, and Ted opted for the most aggressive regimen of chemotherapy available to him. Doctors told Ted and Joanie that the average life expectancy for someone with his condition was between 21 months and 28 months. “We were speechless,” Joanie said.

Elizabeth visited her parents’ house every day, watching her father’s swift decline. She felt powerless against the disease, which has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, when she came up with the idea to swim to Block Island to raise money for cancer research. She partnered with the nonprofit Swim Across America, and to date has raised over $100,000. 

Ted and Elizabeth Beisel.

On a clear day, you can just make out Block Island from Matunuck Beach, where the family would often visit. As a young girl, already a prodigious swimmer, Elizabeth had dreamed about one day swimming there, Joanie recalls.

“I didn’t take her seriously at the time. But at 6 years old, she told me she was going to be an Olympian — and she proved herself right,” Joanie said. 

Plus, Elizabeth — a one-time competitor on the reality TV series Survivor — has always savored a challenge, her mother said. It also gave Ted “something to look forward to and really fight for,” Elizabeth said.

This winter, she dove straight into her training — working out seven days a week. She knew she’d need all the time she could get to transform her body, which was conditioned for short bursts of speed in races lasting just minutes in temperature-controlled pools, to one that could handle seven hours in the cold ocean water, fighting against the currents. 

Almost every day Beisel has been hitting the gym for about two hours, working on her cardio or lifting, and in the afternoons, swimming upwards of 8 miles. And for the past two months, she’s been taking cold showers to help her acclimate to the chilly water. She said she was caught off guard by just how frigid it was when she first started swimming at the beach near her home in Newport, Rhode Island: “Those first few swims made me wonder if I was in over my head,” she said. 

Each day she’d report back to her father about how much money she’d raised, a particularly hard workout, or any tightness she was feeling in her shoulders. And he was thrilled. “He was so excited and he was so optimistic that he was going to beat this and that he was going to be there to see Elizabeth finish,” Joanie said. 

For a while, the chemotherapy seemed to be working, shrinking Ted’s tumors. The Beisels even held a celebration to mark the progress, but the treatment ravaged Ted’s body. “He lost the strength to even walk our two little dogs. And then we had to get him a cane, and the cane became a walker, and when he started to fall, that was replaced by a wheelchair,” Joanie said. 

Ted died on July 1, just two months before Elizabeth was originally scheduled to swim. The loss was devastating for all of them, and highlights the unique cruelty of pancreatic cancer. The condition often develops without any symptoms, and by the time it’s diagnosed, has already spread throughout the body. 

The fact that there’s still no early detection test for pancreatic cancer has infuriated Joanie. She hopes her daughter’s upcoming feat will spread awareness about the condition — and the need for a screening tool to be developed. 

“I’m so proud of her for this, because she won’t stop. She’s like a dog with a bone,” she said. “We need to catch this earlier.”

Ted and Elizabeth Beisel at the 2012 London Olympics.

Elizabeth hasn’t really come up for air since her father’s death, she said. Immediately after his funeral she flew to Tokyo to cover the Olympics for NBC, and when she returned, she got right back in the water. 

“I became almost more serious about training, because I so badly wanted to succeed at this for him,” she said. “I was going to do anything I could to set myself up for success.”

She’s now confident that months of training have prepared her physically for the long-distance swim. But she has no control over the marine life that could get in her way, or the strong currents she may have to fight through, or the threat of hypothermia. Already, an active hurricane season has postponed the event, which organizers hope to hold later this month. 

She’s holding out for a clear day, where the sun can warm the water when she takes off alongside a small crew consisting of an EMT, two shark experts, and marathon swimmer Elaine Howley, who has helped her prepare. 

“I always envisioned my dad being at Block Island waiting for me to finish. I replay that scene over and over of how as soon as I land, I would run into his arms,” she said. “Sadly, he’ll never get to see me swim to Block Island…but his fight wasn’t for nothing.”

To learn more about Elizabeth’s cause and to donate, click here