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Rising Hereford junior takes plunge: From competitive swimmer to volunteer coach, Caroline Benda follows in mom’s footsteps

Rising Hereford junior takes plunge: From competitive swimmer to volunteer coach, Caroline Benda follows in mom’s footsteps
Caroline Benda, 16, of Parkton, and her mother, Marci, stand on the pool deck at Meadowbrook Swim Club, where they volunteer teaching novice swimmers so they can participate in Swim Across America-Baltimore, a fundraiser for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Rising Hereford High junior Caroline Benda logs more hours in a pool than the average teenager spends on a cellphone. During each of her nine weekly practices, she swims between 2 and 4-plus miles.

The competitive swimmer, a member of NBAC — the team that’s produced a handful of Olympians, including Michael Phelps — is making a name for herself on the national swimming circuit.

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Having recently won this year’s 2.2-mile The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim amid choppy waters and far more seasoned participants, she’s eyeing a spot in next year’s prestigious Open Water National Championships. But this summer, the 16-year-old has taken on a swimming challenge of a different sort.

Alongside her mother and former competitive swimmer Marci Benda, Caroline is coaching novice swimmers on how to prepare for an upcoming endurance event. But her students’ goal isn’t to set any records, or even necessarily to swim fast; some of the swimmers weren’t even comfortable putting their face in the water this summer when they started the free 16-week swim classes at Meadowbrook Swim Club.

Aptly called Learn to Swim a Mile, the classes prepare participants to swim the 1-mile pool swim at Meadowbrook or the open-water swim in the Magothy River, on Sept. 14 and 15, respectively. Proceeds from both events benefit the 10th annual Swim Across America (SAA)-Baltimore.

In 2009, SAA-Baltimore launched in support of the nationwide nonprofit SAA, which began in 1987 as a grass-roots effort to raise money for a network of clinicians and researchers pioneering new and better treatments for cancer.

Since its inception, SAA has flourished, growing to 20 annual open-water swims and 100 pool swims nationwide. To date, it has raised more than $80 million toward its cause. SAA-Baltimore has contributed more than $3 million over the past decade toward that amount.

Funds stay local, supporting groundbreaking studies in immunotherapy and other emerging areas of cancer research at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Reaching lofty research goals that include earlier detection and better treatment of cancer starts with individual swimmers willing to raise a minimum of $250 for the cause and able to splash their way through 66 lengths of a 25-meter pool or a circular river route.

Volunteer teen coach

Caroline is the only teenage volunteer coach on deck during the Monday evening swim lessons, whose participants range in age from 22 to 70. She takes the role seriously.

“She’s an active coach,” said Annie Applegarth, a cancer survivor who chairs SAA-Baltimore and serves as a volunteer swim coach alongside Caroline, her mom, and two other adult coaches.

Ten years ago, Applegarth found herself alongside a group of novice adults learning to swim strongly enough to plunge into Swim Across America-Baltimore’s 1-mile bay swim. Since then, she has successfully completed the one-mile swim each year, save for the third annual event, when she pushed herself to do the 3-mile course. Having been on the receiving end of coaching as an adult, Applegarth is sympathetic to Caroline’s unique circumstances.

“What high schooler would approach a 50-year-old and say, ‘Your stroke is wrong?’” said Applegarth, who notes that the naturally somewhat shy Caroline eagerly responds to swimmers’ questions about improving their form.

In addition to tweaking swimmers’ strokes, the young Benda sets up the lanes before practice and communicates the day’s workouts to the swimmers-in-training. Behind the scenes, she’s also been helping Applegarth prepare for the event in other ways, like sorting and folding T-shirts they’ll give away at the SAA-Baltimore events. Benda is earning community service credit for her volunteer efforts. She’s also following in the footsteps of her mother.

A family affair

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Marci Benda is a physical therapist with Lifestrength Physical Therapy Inc. in Towson who volunteers for SAA-Baltimore as both a coach for novice swimmers and a cheerleader of sorts on the day of the event, congratulating swimmers and handing them towels as they complete the bay swim. She’s also a lifelong swimmer.

She met her husband, Brian Benda, now a senior associate with Alvi Associates Inc., an infrastructure engineering firm in Towson, when the two swam for the University of South Carolina in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Caroline Benda, too, has her sights set on swimming in college. And as far back as she can remember, she has spent a lot of time in and around the pool.

“They grew up around swimming,” said Marci Benda of Caroline and her other daughter, Meghan, who’s 14. Their father was a competitive amateur triathlete, competing in events that include a combination of swimming, running and cycling. Benda would often take their young daughters to the events to cheer on their father. The Benda family also have been longtime members of Meadowbrook Swim Club, and when Caroline was 4, her parents signed her up for summer swim team there.

“The next year, she got all in,” Benda recalled. NBAC, the competitive year-round swim team that trains swimmers at Meadowbrook, was piloting a program for very young swimmers and invited Caroline to join. Meghan followed her sister to the team two years later. Although the girls tried various other sports over the years, swimming stuck.

In addition to keeping them fit and allowing them to enjoy competing, swimming has been an avenue for the Benda family to get involved as volunteers for SAA-Baltimore.

Caroline and Meghan each have swum in the event twice, which also requires participants to raise a minimum of $250 toward the cause. Their father swam the inaugural 5-mile open-water swim several years ago, and their mother has volunteered in multiple capacities over the past decade.

Personal connection to the cause

As is the case with most people who choose to commit to a cause, Marci Benda’s draw to SAA-Baltimore was personal. A close college friend who seemed perfectly healthy was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer at the age of 24.

“She didn’t check any of the boxes,” Benda said. Given that the young woman had no outstanding risk factors for the disease, the diagnosis came as an enormous shock. She survived, but had to get a total hysterectomy at age 25.

Coincidentally, several years ago when Benda was asked to get involved in SAA-Baltimore as a volunteer, she turned to the website to learn more about the cause and was immediately drawn to the section on research.

There, Benda discovered that money raised by SAA-Baltimore helped fund breakthrough international research led by Johns Hopkins scientists that, eventually, may lead to routine early detection of ovarian cancer. The scientists found a way to capture fragments of DNA shed by tumors into the bloodstream during Pap smears (routine test administered to women during annual gynecological visits) and then test them for early-stage ovarian and cervical cancers. To date, there is no approved screening test for ovarian cancer, but this early research proves promising.

It also exemplifies the type of science that SAA-Baltimore strives to fund. “It’s supporting the newest and best ideas, often at early stages, that really can be game changers,” said William Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. It’s also inspiring community members like the Benda family to become SAA-Baltimore volunteers, without whom the organization wouldn’t be able to operate.

“The real heroes never get noticed,” said SAA-Baltimore chair Applegarth.

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