Joanie Anastasi had never been in a swimming pool before last year, let alone paddling around in the open water of a local bay.
But now Anastasi, of Galloway Township, can swim laps on her own in the Ocean City Aquatic Center. That's when she's not busy exploring the saltwater nature in Great Egg Harbor Bay, off Beesleys Point in Upper Township.
Anastasi was born with spina bifida, a condition of the spine that's kept her in a wheelchair her whole life. So she's thrilled to be part of a program run by Bruckner Chase, of Ocean City, to put people with physical disabilities into the water to exercise on Tuesday nights - or on top of the water to paddle on Sundays, at least in the warmer-weather months of the year.
"It was a great feeling. It was indescribable," says Anastasi, 44, who works at Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation in Galloway Township, the sponsor of the Ocean City Swim Club/Bacharach Unified Team. "Last week, when I went home, I had tears in my eyes. ... This is a whole different world to me."
Chase is known around the wet world for his own exploits in water and in endurance, including a 28-mile swim through California's Monterey Bay and swims around some of Alaska's islands - with no wetsuit. He also has done Ironman-distance triathlons and run 100-mile races, among other feats that sound nearly impossible to many of us.
But he can barely contain his excitement talking about seeing someone swimming laps in a closely guarded pool - because that someone was Anastasi, who was afraid to take her hands off the side when she first got into the pool in early 2013.
"First we had to get her comfortable getting her face in water, help her learn to not fight that, and then we could focus on a positive experience," says Chase, who also coaches very able-bodied athletes at the Ocean City Swim Club.
"After that, we could combine her strengths with what we knew was an effective way to move through water," he continues. "And last Tuesday night, she swam 350 meters by herself. I get to see people do some pretty cool stuff in the pool, but I know that a year ago, she was afraid to even get away from the side of the pool."
Becky McGill, of Somers Point, was the link who brought the rehab hospital together with the swim club. McGill is coordinator of Bacharach's spinal-cord-injury program; she's also Chase's sister in law - her sister is his wife and partner in most of his projects, Michelle Evans-Chase.
Sitting by the Ocean City pool on a recent Tuesday night, McGill said the idea for these programs came up when she had a paralyzed patient who used to be a competitive swimmer - and wanted to try swimming again to help in her rehab.
"But there was nothing in the area for her," McGill says, so she went to the swimming coach in the family to ask for ideas. "He said, 'Why don't we just integrate the team?'"
Chase says he has experience in Special Olympics coaching, and he also knew of groups in California - where he used to live - that get athletes with disabilities into the water. He wasn't part of those, but still, he didn't think it sounded overly ambitious or dangerous to try to get people out of wheelchairs and into a pool, or even open water.
"With my experience in prone paddling and swimming, I thought it would be ideal for them," says Chase, the founder of a nonprofit group called Bruckner Chase Ocean Positive, whose website describes him as an "ocean advocate and endurance waterman." (See brucknerchase.com for more details.)
McGill grew up in a "swimming family" and enjoys paddleboarding herself. She sees that sport as a perfect fit for some people she treats.
"Paddling is accessible ... because you don't use your legs anyway on the board," she says.
Angelica Mullin, of Egg Harbor Township, was severely injured in a car accident 13 years ago. She never thought she'd be able to paddle her way around her local bay - but her coach, Chase, brags that the two of them went out for a 3 1/2-mile tour of Ocean City's back bays last fall.
"Every step of the way, I was afraid to embark on that new part of the journey," Mullin says. "But because Becky and Bruckner and really the whole group are so great, I was able to take on ... every new challenge. Bruckner was encouraging me to do a distance paddle, so we just said, 'Let's do it.'"
Of course, she wasn't sure she could - or should - do what they were leaving land to do.
"But Bruckner is very knowledgeable and very safety-oriented, and he knows all aspects of paddling," Mullin says. "So I trusted him. I didn't think he was crazy - I thought, 'If you believe it, I'll believe it.'"
Chase emphasizes that it takes a lot of other people to make this program happen - he gets hours of volunteer help from local lifeguards all year, and from volunteer rescue squads on the bay days in Upper Township. Plus some of the boards and other equipment were donated by local supporters, or bought by Bacharach. The sponsors also pay for the pool time in Ocean City, so the program is free to all the participants.
But he knows all the effort has changed lives, and Mullin can vouch for that.
Seeing what she's been able to do on the water has changed how she sees herself, allowing her "to definitely challenge my own perceptions of my limits," she says. "It was really an awakening experience for me."
Doretta Wilson, of Lower Township, is a retired nurse who needed the pool part of the program. A 2005 stroke hit her right side hard and forced her to use a cane; that was followed a few years ago by a knee-replacement on the same side.
She doesn't paddle, but she'd like to be able to go to her favorite Delaware Bay beach without being scared of falling into water - something she did twice as a kid, when she couldn't swim.
"I just knew I didn't have the tools to keep myself safe when I was around the water," Wilson says. She knows she's still a start-up swimmer, but "I really enjoy it. Once I learn how to actually do the swimming part of it, I want to use that as a go-to exercise, and do it at least twice a week. Because it's fun along with being good for me."
Anastasi already does lots of exercise - she goes to the gym, and even Zumba classes, in her wheelchair. But she's amazed by her own success in the pool, and even moreso by what she's done on the bay.
To her coach, her hard work on swimming has let her enjoy the bay as a paddler.
"On the paddleboard, she was really hesitant - she was worried that, if she fell off, could she stay afloat?" Chase says. "But once she got so much stronger in the pool, it opened up the entire bay to her - knowing that she's safe, and if she fell off, she could swim back over and get on the board again."
Just last Sunday, Anastasi paddled herself from the beach near the Tuckahoe Inn to the now-closed Beesleys Point Bridge and back. She's not sure how far that is, but she does know "it was a beautiful day - and a whole different experience," she says. So she plans to keep testing and stretching herself.
"I'm a go-getter," she adds. "Life is way too short, so you've got to enjoy it while you're here."
Mullin isn't finished challenging herself either.
"My next goal is a 5-mile paddle," she says. "We're definitely working on that - for next year, probably."
(For more details, call Becky McGill at 609-748-5411.)
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