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20 BHS swimmers traverse Lake Bemidji: Swim for a Cause on track to become annual event

MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER Twenty Bemidji High School swimmers swam across Lake Bemidji Friday morning as part of a fundraiser, Swim for a Cause. Tyler Hemp, left, the first to finish the 6.7-mile swim, congratulates Danielle Hoven after she completed the cold swim at the shores outside of the Green Mill.

BEMIDJI -- Twenty high-school swimmers braved cold waters, brisk temperatures and windy conditions as they swam 6.7 miles across Lake Bemidji Friday morning.

"It was really cold," said senior Danielle Hoven upon finishing.

The Swim for a Cause, starting at the Bemidji Town & Country Club and finishing outside of the Green Mill, raised money for the BHS swim teams and Forward Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to families with children experiencing life-threatening health crises.

Senior BHS swimmer Alysa Wright is the lone swimmer who completed the swim in back-to-back years. She and her uncle, Cory Wright, made the inaugural Swim for a Cause last summer, raising more than $2,400.

"I guess this year was a little harder because it was colder," she said.

But, mentally, it was probably a little easier because she knew what to expect swimming so far in open water.

Dana Wolff, manager of branch administration at the Bemidji Bank Forward and a member of the board of director for the Forward Foundation, said last year's Swim for a Cause was one for the first-ever fundraisers for the the then-brand-new Forward Foundation and the event is on track to become an annual affair.

"They're all on board for next year again," she said of BHS swimmers, "and they want to give other people (members of the public) the option of joining them."

After the Wrights completed the swim on their own last year, this year the opportunity was extended to all members of the swim teams and 20 decided to take part.

"We've always trained pretty hard so we're in good enough shape to swim this far," Hoven said, "so we didn't have to think too hard about whether we could (physically) do it, it was more how in shape you are for swimming in that cold of water."

The water temperature at the beginning for the swim was 66 degrees and at the end, it was slightly higher at 67.3 degrees. It also got windier as swimmers went on.

Boats followed along, to both offer respite and to keep them on course. The earliest-arriving swimmers finished their swim in about three hours.

Two of the 20 swimmers swam the entire distance without a break, Steph Frye, who graduated this spring and will attend the University of North Dakota on a swimming scholarship, and senior Tyler Hemp.

"(It was) like a fun thing, just to do it," Hemp said.

Hemp has a personal connection to the event. Forward Foundation provides financial assistance to the families of children battling life-threatening illnesses. Those families live in the 14 communities served by Bank Forward, Insure Forward, Invest Forward and Tax Forward.

Hemp himself battled -- and beat -- acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) as a child. Diagnosed at 4 years old, he went through 42 months of treatment, including chemotherapy, hip-bone drilling for marrow and spinal punctures. Shots and pills became part of his daily regimen.

"It's one of those things he doesn't go around telling everybody about," said Hemp's mother, Erica (Hemp) Daman, standing on the beach where she watched Hemp emerge as the first among all BHS swimmers to complete the swim.

Hemp was diagnosed after Daman, then a single mom, suspected something was off with her son.

"It was just a kind of thing that I knew something wasn't right, it wasn't as it should have been," she said.

Seeking a second opinion after his pediatrician suspected he was just worn out, blood tests eventually revealed the diagnosis.

"They diagnosed him and they said, 'You need to be in Fargo (now), can you drive yourself?'" she said.

Her mother went and got Hemp from daycare and Daman -- having been told to pack for a week, did just that -- and the family went to Fargo, N.D.

"We literally showed up and the hospital was empty," she said. "We look around and we see this guy with a mustache coming down the hallway. I couldn't remember the doctor's name because everything had gone in one ear and out the other ... But he looked right at us and said, 'This must be Tyler.' He knew exactly who he was."

Treatments began immediately.

"It was horrible listening to him scream and cry," Daman said, "and he didn't understand.'"

But Daman aimed to make their regular trips to Fargo as fun as they could be, despite the treatments, so today, she said, Hemp doesn't remember much of the tough times, just the highlights.

"It was supposed to be a good time, we tried to make it fun," she said. "There were kids that cried every time they were up there and we didn't want to be those people. This was going to be our life for four years so you have to figure out how to make it happy, how you're going to make the most of it."

Hemp was declared cured of ALL after 10 years' of clean tests.

"I really do think that he has the personality and he is who he is today because of what he went through, even if he doesn't remember it all," Daman said.