Aquathon raises ALS awareness

Westminster hosted the 11th annual Aquathon a few weeks ago to help raise money for ALS research, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Pete Higgins, one of the varsity swim coaches, had his son Bobby die due to the disease, and Palmer Greene, a varsity captain that year, started the event in response. Higgins has an impact on everyone around him, which is proven through the fact that he has a pool, a holiday, and an event dedicated to him.

“Pete really leaned on the team during this tough time,” said varsity swim coach Jan Allen. “Palmer was motivated by this whole situation and decided to do something about it.”

The event raises awareness across Westminster and is also a great way for the swim team to bond and show their encouragement.

“We really just want to support our coach in the best way possible to a swim coach,” said sophomore Mary Tucker. “Swimming!”

Although most of the swim team attends, the Aquathon is open to all students, swimmers or not, who want to help out and have some fun.

 “We get to have a lot of fun,” said Tucker. “We play water polo and do relays, we get food and door prizes, and we bond with, support and give back to our coach and his family.”

Although not a completely original idea, the swim captains continue to pass the torch down to the underclassmen in order to continue supporting their coach.

“The concept of a Swim-A-Thon has been in the books for a long time,” said Higgins. “People would pledge a certain amount per lap in a certain time limit. We’re using it here to raise funds in an anemic way. The Swim-A-Thon is a protected word almost like a patent, so we started calling it an Aquathon.”

Researchers are still looking to find the cause of ALS. The disease has a 100 percent mortality rate. Any money raised by Westminster swimmers can make a difference in eradicating this awful sickness.

“ALS is a very ugly disease,” said Higgins. “With ALS you have no control of your body. Your mind is healthy, but your body has left. I cared for my son the last two and a half years of his life and sat and watched Bobby deteriorate. I even had to suction out all the fluids in his throat because he lost the ability to swallow and cough so he wouldn’t drown in his own saliva.”

ALS is a degenerative disease that leads to muscle atrophy, so the affected person is completely paralyzed. The people with the disease are totally dependent on people around them for help with basic needs.

“ALS isn’t widely known, so a lot more people have it than we know,” said Higgins. “You’d have to do a lot of explaining because people don’t really know what this disease is. Anything we do to get rid of this disease will be monumental. I’d love to see that happen within my lifetime.”

Not many people had heard about ALS before the Aquathon or the recent viral sensation of the “ice bucket challenge” because its victims passed away within a few years of contracting the disease; not many living people have ALS.

“This idea definitely raises awareness,” said Allen, “and the fact that’s impacted someone right here in our community is very motivating. Financially, we set a goal to raise $5,000. So far, we’ve raised $3,145. It’s great for each group of swimmers to see that one of their own dreamed up this important event.”

Contrary to what one might think, increased recent ALS awareness due to the “ice bucket challenge” has actually been a financial obstacle for the event. Because people had already donated during the ice bucket challenge, students and parents have become less willing to donate at the event.

“The ice bucket challenge essentially detracted some of the financial rewards,” said Higgins. “We got around 9.5 million from the ice bucket challenge. That took a lot of the ‘zing’ from the high school kids on the local level.”

Despite setbacks, the financial benefits along with the excitement makes the Aquathon one of the swimmers’ and the coaches’ favorite times of the year.

 “I really think about this event all year long,” said Higgins.

Generally, anyone who wants to participate may, from parents to Westminster students and alumni, along with students from other schools.

“This year, most of the team showed up,” said Tucker, “and many parents and other kids came as well to support and have fun.”

The event also publicizes the harsh realities of this disease and its impact on people close to Westminster, and it motivates students and parents to make a difference.

“It just shows how much of an impact Pete has on the people around him,” said Allen.

The swimmers continue to support Pete through his continuous journey through the pain that ALS has caused. Pete Higgins Day is even an official holiday, January 5th, decreed by Maynard Jackson, the mayor of Atlanta at the time. Though the tradition first began in 2007, the year Bobby Higgins passed away at age 47, the Aquathon is a precious tradition that Westminster hopes to continue.