Swimming nearly two miles through chilly San Francisco Bay waters from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf while wearing nothing but a speedo, a swim cap and a pair of goggles may seem a bit crazy to some, but for Peter and Sam Finlayson, the annual Alcatraz Sharkfest swim is not about proving they can withstand the elements. The brothers make the swim each year as members of Team Hydro to help raise money and awareness for hydrocephalus, a neurological condition that took the life of their sister Kate in November of 2010 at age 26.
Hydrocephalus or “water on the brain” is a disease that affects approximately one million Americans. It occurs when fluid buildup puts pressure on the brain and damages the tissue. The most common medical practice to combat hydrocephalus is the surgical insertion of a shunt to help drain the fluid; however, these shunts are the most likely to fail medical device approved for humans as 50 percent prove defunct within the first two years. Hydrocephalus is the most common reason for brain surgery in children and there is no cure for the disease, according to the Hydrocephalus Association.
The Finlayson brothers founded Team Hydro in 2008 when complications from hydrocephalus forced their sister into the hospital. She recovered only to be hospitalized again a few months later for what ended up being the final sixteen months of her life. Team Hydro raises money by gaining sponsors to donate for swimmers in the Alcatraz Sharkfest, and from 2008-2011 Team Hydro has raised $237,000 for hydrocephalus research.
“The first year we were happy to just finish the swim and survive, the next year we had T-shirts, and we had swim caps the next,” said Peter Finlayson on team Hydro’s growth. “What would be nice is if we could eventually grow an endowment where we could have enough capital to fund research and support worthy causes. We want to start something that can live on after us.”
Kate was born three and a half months premature with underdeveloped lungs. High oxygen flow to the brain caused a hemorrhage in the brain, leaving the right side of her body severely weakened. The stroke resulted in scarring, which in turn caused her to develop hydrocephalus.
“She had a shunt put in when she was two weeks old, and as part of rehab from a stroke, she started swimming,” said Kate’s older brother Peter. “At first she looked like a rowboat with one oar, but eventually you couldn’t tell she was sick.”
The Finlayson family are swimmers through and through. The three siblings Sam, Kate, and Peter began competitive swimming at Little Falls Pool in Bethesda before moving to Japan and then California. Peter was a part of two national championship water polo teams at Stanford in 2001 and 2002 while his younger brother Sam is a rising senior on the Stanford team. Kate set the MCSL record in the 8 & under 25 m breaststroke back in 1993, and she was the only Little Falls swimmer to have set an MCSL record until Rachel Danegger broke the 9-10 breaststroke record last summer. For Kate, however, swimming was never about setting records.
“She always considered herself a swimmer,” said mother Pam Finlayson. “What she learned from swimming helped her deal with more than one hundred surgeries. The one thing my kids have learned from swimming is that no matter where you are starting from, if you practice you will get better.”
This year, Team Hydro expanded to the east coast, and, for the first time on June 2, a group of twelve Team Hydro swimmers entered the 1.8-mile Potomac Sharkfest swim from Aqua Land in Charles County, Md., to Dahlgren Wayside Park, Va.
In addition, Little Falls Pool in Bethesda — the pool where Kate learned to swim — held a swim-a-thon on June 21 to raise funds for Team Hydro. The Finlayson’s former neighborhood pool raised over five thousand dollars as forty-eight swimmers swam a little over 87 miles combined in two hours. Eleven-year-old John Marder led the way with 300 laps on his own — approximately 4.7 miles.
“We grew up in D.C. and a bunch of our friends who swam with us when we were kids that we hadn’t heard from in fifteen years saw what we were doing with Alcatraz and said we can’t all rally in California, so let’s do something here,” said Peter Finlayson.
“It has just been incredible and certainly not something we expected,” said Peter’s mother Pam. “It is very touching that a lot of our support has come from the swimming community. A lot of people from Little Falls who we hadn’t seen in such a long time have given us a lot of help, and it has been really amazing to see. The idea that these young kids were willing to do it really could not be more meaningful.”
Despite affecting nearly as many people in America as the HIV virus, most people have never heard of hydrocephalus.
“Sadly the way the world works is that research and funding simply don’t happen until the general public becomes aware of a condition,” said Pam Finlayson. “My boys want to spread awareness in order to give hydrocephalus the attention it deserves.”
Increased awareness will lead to research, so drawing attention and disseminating information about the disease is Team Hydro’s top priority at the moment.
“For us it was the helpless feeling we had sitting there watching my sister,” said Peter. “She never complained. She was strong; full of love and courage. We really wanted to do something. We thought maybe we can’t cure the condition, but were pretty good swimmers so we just thought of how we could use that to help.”
“She was really, really touched and excited that they would want to help her in this way,” said Pam on her daughter’s reaction to the creation of Team Hydro. “Her case was really difficult and frustrating, but she got some sense of hope and purpose knowing her experience could be used to help others down the road.”
Helping others with hydrocephalus is all the Finlaysons can do after Kate passed away on November 7th, 2010. Peter is a consultant for a health care consulting firm while his younger brother Sam has one more year left at Stanford before he graduates and enters medical school in hope of becoming a neurosurgeon. He is spending his summer working in a lab doing research on hydrocephalus in Boston.
“You go through something like this and you can sit around and be sad and feel sorry for yourself or you think, wait, can something be learned from this so we can help others,” said Pam. “Kate wanted to be a nurse. She couldn’t imagine living a life where she wouldn’t be trying to give help and assistance to somebody else. Her brothers are helping her do that now”