Swimspire Stories: Kelly Parker Palace, Conquering Breast Cancer through Swimming

Swimspire Stories: Kelly Parker Palace,
Conquering Breast Cancer through Swimming

Kelly Parker Palace

Kelly Parker Palace

In our sixth edition of Swimspire Stories, we are honored to present Masters national record holder Kelly Parker Palace! Kelly has been competing since she was 5 years old, swimming through USA Swimming, NCAA Division 1 and now Masters. Kelly attributes her swimming success to helping her overcome obstacles in life, such as Red Skin Syndrome, and – most recently – breast cancer. She hopes to raise awareness and support for both diseases and provide inspiration to other swimmers through her own enjoyment of the sport. We had the honor of sitting down with Kelly recently to hear her story.

JG: When and why did you first become involved with swimming?

KPP: My first foray into the world of competitive swimming began at 5 years old, even before I learned how to swim. My family was at a summer league swim meet – not because we had any other swimmers in the family, but simply because we were having a family outing and there happen to be a meet going on. With two older brothers keeping them busy, my parents lost track of me. I saw some kids about my size lining up at the starting blocks to race, and decided to follow what they were doing. I did my best to imitate their start and when the starter’s gun went off, I threw myself into the water, both legs curled up. No one realized that I was not one of the swim team members. Not having bothered with the small detail of knowing how to swim, I quickly sank to the bottom of the pool and the lifeguard had to rescue me! It was pretty amusing to those watching, although probably not to my parents! I was awarded a ribbon anyway, maybe for being a brave 5 year old or maybe because they were happy I did not drown. Strangely enough, instead of having a negative effect on me, I begged my parents to let me join the swim team.

Kelly Parker Palace

Kelly Parker Palace

JG: How did that first foray into the pool transition to competing?

KPP: After my near-drowning, ribbon-winning experience at age 5, I was determined to learn how to swim and started lessons, then summer league swimming, then USS (USA) Swimming, then NCAA Division 1, then Masters. I think having three brothers made me competitive and I was fortunate that in my youth I had excellent coaches that encouraged me to continually improve and helped me set and achieve big goals. Swimming has simply always been a part of my life. It is my very favorite activity to do or to coach or to watch. For the most part, I have been swimming 2 to 4 days a week for the last several decades. There were some stretches of years where I did not swim a stroke, but never because I didn’t want to, more often because I was too busy or ill.

JG: What was your swimming journey like from when you first started until now?

KPP: I have always felt a kinship with the water, a freedom of swimming, and appreciated the beauty of how water moves around me when I swim. I like the way light reflects off the water, the walls, the bottom, or others’ goggles. I think outdoor backstroke flags are one of the most beautiful sights in life as they sail in the wind, against weather of all kinds. I enjoy the challenge of trying to be efficient with my technique or pace. Swimming has always been and always will be my energizing life source because of how it makes me feel, and because of the camaraderie and friendships I have with my fellow swimmers.

JG: What were some of your greatest accomplishments?

Kelly and Rowdy Gaines

Kelly and Rowdy Gaines

KPP: I think my most prized accomplishment would be making Olympic Trials in the 800m freestyle in 1984. In terms of Masters – surprisingly, 2016 – the year I got breast cancer – was my best Masters year ever, when I received an “All-Star” designation for the most #1 rankings in a year and set 3 National records. In all my 25 years of Masters swimming, I had never received All-Star status before. Other than this, my favorite fun stat is that I still hold my high school 200 and 500 freestyle records after 38 years!

JG: What were some of your biggest challenges, prior to fighting breast cancer?

KPP: One of my greatest struggles has been living with a horrific condition called Red Skin Syndrome for almost 10 years, that has sometimes kept me out of the water for long stretches at a time. This condition was much more challenging for me than even breast cancer. I co-founded a charity called ITSAN.org that seeks to help those with Red Skin Syndrome. It is the cause that is nearest and dearest to my heart. Although breast cancer gets a lot of attention, it is not so with Red Skin Syndrome, which is a living hell.

Other than medical conditions, training by myself has been a big challenge. For the last 12 years, I have lived in an area without a coached Masters team. I’ve done all my training alone, or sometimes with my husband – when he is not on a surfboard! When I visit family in Virginia, I love training with the Virginia Masters Swim Team and one of their great coaches, Mark Kutz. Right now, my husband and I are training with the Sarasota Sharks Masters and it is a nice situation with multiple practices each day, many swimmers, and a coach on deck! I’ve mostly represented VMST during my Masters career, but now I am on SYSM.

JG: While most high-level swimmers choose to leave the sport after their collegiate or professional career is over, you have continued to compete at quite an intense level. What is it that motivates you to continue the sport at a competitive level?

KPP: At 55 years old, I still have a strong desire and motivation to swim fast and enjoy applying the latest new things that elite swimmers are doing. I mostly like to compete against myself. I compare my times from my younger age groups and see if I can stay at or near them. This motivates me to go to practice, because I know if I get out of shape my times will fall off. My 500 yard free is my barometer event – not too long or too short. When I was a 35 year old Masters swimmer, I swam the event in a 5:26. As a 40 year old I swam it in 5:33, as a 45 year old in 5:31, as a 50 year old in 5:37. This year, as a 55 year old (after breast cancer) I swam a 5:33. So for 20 years I have stayed right around the same time. This motivates me to keep trying to “hold my pace”. I’m also encouraged and inspired by seeing older women, like Laura Val, Diann Uustal and Shirley Loftus-Charley, that are cranking out amazing times in their 60s and 70s.

Kelly and her husband, Mark

Kelly and her husband, Mark

JG: What is your training schedule like these days? How do you balance work/family life with swimming?

KPP: My training schedule as a Masters swimmer has consisted of practices 2 to 4 days per week. I don’t lift weights, but do surgical tubing about 15 minutes for several days per week. I believe in quality yardage with race pace training. Because I do shorter, more intense workouts, my swimming training doesn’t consume too much of my time from my work as a realtor or from other activities. On my non-swim days I like to walk, cycle or do yoga. I am also very fortunate that my husband is a Masters swimmer, so we get to swim together and combine some vacations with Masters meets.

JG: Tell us the story of your breast cancer diagnosis. How did you first discover that there was something wrong? What was your reaction when you were diagnosed?

KPP: In the summer 2016, I felt a lump in my left breast when I was putting on my swim suit. That lump was actually benign, but a follow up ultrasound found a smaller lump that was an invasive ductal carcinoma. The cancerous lump was so small it had not shown up on two mammograms, only via ultrasound. The doctors removed both lumps (by lumpectomy) and three lymph nodes as well. I was lucky that my cancer was only stage 1 and not in my lymph nodes. I’m grateful to my conscientious ultrasound technician that found this small cancer in its very early stage. According to my oncologist I now have a 90% chance that the cancer will never come back. Getting the diagnosis of breast cancer was extremely shocking and traumatic, but leaning on some of my fellow swimmers that had gone through it before was incredibly helpful. I especially got support from Arlene D., Kelly C. and Terry C., who are all fellow Masters Swimmers and breast cancer survivors.

JG: How did you transition so quickly back into swimming after your surgery? Has the cancer affected your training in other ways?

Kelly at the Rowdy Gaines Classic

Kelly at the Rowdy Gaines Classic

KPP: One month after surgery, I swam at the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic, broke a couple of Zone records and swam a few USMS #1 times. I think that was because I was in top swim shape going into surgery and only had to be out of the water for 3 weeks. The worst part of the surgery, besides having the two lumps removed from my breast, was having three of my left underarm lymph nodes removed as well. My extension/reach of my left arm does not feel like it has the full range of motion that it used to. I am hopeful that it will improve with time. Fortunately for me, my surgeon really believed in swimming as the best exercise, post-breast cancer surgery, especially for avoiding lymphedema which is a post-surgery complication from lymph node removal. My surgeon encouraged me to get back into swimming as soon as my incisions were healed enough to return to the water. I was swimming very gently three weeks after surgery and then built up my speed and distance.

JG: Have you reworked your goals after your cancer experience?

KPP: Prior to finding out I had breast cancer, I had already set my goals for my new age-group. I just “aged-up” to 55-59 in September of 2016 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in October just a month later. So when I was done with my surgery and back swimming again, I just kept the same goals. I think it was part of my healing process. Instead of worrying or thinking too much about breast cancer, I just went back to swimming and trying to hit my goals. It gave me a reason to rehabilitate myself and get back to normal.

Kelly at YMCA Nationals

Kelly at YMCA Nationals

JG: Have you reworked your goals after your cancer experience?

KPP: One thing I asked myself after my cancer diagnosis was – if this cancer were to end my life, what would I look back on and wish I had done differently? Would my goals be the same? I think maybe I will want to put less pressure on myself and swim more for fun and fitness. Only time will tell. But mostly I decided I want to use my love of swimming to raise money for ITSAN.org (or Red Skin Syndrome). I plan to spend more time on raising funds and awareness for those suffering with Red Skin Syndrome. So I have a new website www.KellySwimsforCharity.com to do this. It is going to be a lot of fun and help an important one-of-a-kind charity.

JG: Why did you decide to start these websites? What are your hopes for the sites and how can people contribute?

KPP: For swimmers going through breast cancer I created another website: http://www.swimmingthroughbreastcancer.com/. I don’t want monetary contributions for that – all that I would like is for any swimmer who is going through breast cancer or who knows a fellow swimmer going through breast cancer to get in touch with me so that I could help support them, share their story (if they are willing) and be a connection to other swimmers as an inspiration.

Mark and Kelly Palace

Mark and Kelly Palace

For www.KellySwimsforCharity.com, I do want donations. I’m passionate about helping both breast cancer survivors who are swimmers and those suffering from Red Skin Syndrome. I’m looking forward to continuing my efforts both in and out of the pool!

Thanks for your time, Kelly, and we are looking forward to seeing your websites and your swimming continue to progress!

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