Into the Swim
by Nathan Dinsdale
illustrations by Alisa Burke

swim1Rendy Lynn Opdycke ‘06 eyed the dark blue water of Lake Washington first with curiosity, then determination. From the banks of Mercer Island she could easily see the mainland neighborhood of Newport Shores across the lake. The crossing was a few hundred meters. A half-mile, tops.

“I can swim that,” Opdycke told her mother. The precocious 8-year-old was informed that she’d be grounded if she did. Opdycke was on restriction by the end of the day.

That was 1992. Sixteen years later, she stepped out of the Pacific Ocean and into history after swimming 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, officially shattering the record for completing the “Triple Crown” of marathon swimming. Only one other person — Opdycke’s coach Alan Voisard—has ever successfully swam the Manhattan Island Marathon, the English Channel and the Catalina Channel all in less than a year. It took Voisard three months. Opdycke did it in 34 days.

Her run at the Triple Crown started in Manhattan on July 5, continued in England on July 27 and culminated with the Catalina swim on Aug. 9. She swam the cumulative 70.5 miles in 26 hours and 50 minutes (another record) while becoming the first person to ever complete “The Quad,” having also conquered the Santa Barbara Channel in 2007.

“After Catalina, I was so out of it I didn’t know who I was at that point,” Opdycke laughs. “It didn’t really hit me until about a month later that I actually did this.”

Then again, she has made a lifelong habit out of shrugging off obstacles, be it swimming through a school of jellyfish or earning a master’s degree despite physical and learning impairments.

“I’m dyslexic, I’m hard of hearing and I don’t have great vision but I’m not going to be ashamed of it,” Opdycke says. “I have a great mom who has always helped me with everything. She’s always been my biggest champion.”

Opdycke calls her mother, Rendy Collobert, “my rock” and her sister Shawna “my cheerleader.” Both are the core of a support team that has helped Opdycke succeed both in and out of the water. It was Shawna who cheered Opdycke on as she battled nausea, frigid temperatures and daunting swells in the English Channel and it was Collobert who read Shakespeare to her daughter when Opdycke struggled to decipher the words herself.

It’s only fitting that Opdycke’s favorite Shakespearean character is Puck, the mischievous woodland jester from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, considering she has an exceedingly dry wit for someone who spends so much time soaking wet.

“Come on, I swim open-water marathons,” Opdycke quips. “You have to have an absurd sense of humor to do something like this.”

What fools these mortals be, indeed. But the underwater dangers — sharks, whales, jellyfish, manatees etc. — Opdycke has encountered don’t give her pause as much as the above-water challenges, like the menacing storm (complete with towering 15-foot swells) that cut a relay swim across the Santa Barbara Channel short.

“You don’t mess with Mother Nature,” Opdycke says. “I challenge her but I also know when to say when.”

But that doesn’t happen often. Opdycke is the first woman to swim the Santa Barbara Channel and — in addition to being the record-holder — is one of only about 25 swimmers to have completed the Triple Crown. And while she excelled in long-distance events for the USD swim team, her true love is in open water.

“Just chasing the black line at the bottom of the pool can get a little old after about, oh, 22 years,” Opdycke laughs. “Open water swimming is different because there are so many outside variables but I think that’s probably why I like it.”

In addition to encounters with wildlife, tumultuous environmental conditions and the complex logistics involved in marathon swimming, Opdycke completed her record-breaking Catalina swim nearly two years to the day that her father, an engineer, died while working on a job site.

Refurbishing the Corvette she inherited from him is just one of the ways Opdycke occupies her time away from the water. She’s also an amateur photographer and artist, listens to electronic music (Daft Punk in particular) before swims and is a fervent supporter of the San Diego Chargers. And if swimming marathons weren’t ambitious enough, Opdycke ran the Los Angeles Marathon earlier this year.

Her prowess in the water has also allowed her opportunities to engage her other passions, like ogling Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace in England and strolling through the Louvre in Paris. (“It was like doing another marathon,” Opdycke jokes.) She reads inspirational books (including biographies of Albert Einstein and Lance Armstrong) and watches inspirational movies (Remember The Titans and Miracle are two favorites) but acknowledges that she avoids watching films like, say, Open Water or Jaws.

After graduating from USD with a communications degree, she recently finished her master’s degree from the University of Southern California with an eye on working in athletic administration. In the meantime, there are always other records to break.

“Records are meant to be broken,” Opdycke says. “If somebody breaks my record, I’ll be happy for them. I’m going to shake their hand and say, ‘Congratulations, you’re crazier than I am.’”

swim2Jim Bolender knows chemistry. He has two degrees, has taught at USD since 1996 and, for the last eight years, has applied all that specialized knowledge in research projects from Baja California to Jamaica and beyond in collaboration with several USD colleagues.

“I’ve been places I never dreamed of” he says. “I’ve seen liberal arts at its fullest and how science fits into the picture.” His own love of science tends to be infectious; many of his students make the decision to delve deeper.

“I’ve had four research students go on to get Ph.D.s or they’re in the process of getting one, which tells me I’m doing the right things in terms of mentoring them. And, through joint projects with [associate professor] Michel Boudrias and the environmental work we do, several more students have gone on to graduate school. These projects are helping them choose their direction.”

Bolender, the 2007 winner of the prestigious Lowell Davies Award, is now directing several more of USD’s top students as director of the Honors Program.

“He’s going to do a phenomenal job developing the undergraduate research aspect of the program. He has a lot of experience with research as a chemist and he’s committed to expanding and enhancing it,” says Noelle Norton, department chair for political science and Bolender’s predecessor as director.

“I think this is the best place for me to be because I love interacting with students and I take pride in what they do,” he says. “The honors program puts in place a structure where these excellent students can excel and really step outside of the box, see cross-disciplines and be challenged.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

swim3Back in the 1990s, the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” became a popular personal motto in the United States, a reminder that Jesus was a kind of moral superhero, able to make the leap from temptation to salvation in a single bound. But was Jesus a superhero? Did his humanity differ from that of our own?

In a recently published paper titled “Arius, Superman and the Tertium Quid: When Popular Culture Meets Christology,” USD theology professor Susie Paulik Babka contrasts the life of Jesus with that of Superman, the Marvel Comic Books hero. Babka says she is fascinated by the parallels that pop up between the son of God and the cape-wearing son of Jor-El from the planet Krypton.

“Many Christians see Jesus as a kind of ‘superhero’ who ‘comes down’ to earth to save us,” Babka says. “What concerns me as a theologian, however, is what happens to Jesus when Jesus is understood as a superhero, someone with ‘magical powers’ who does things it seems no other human being can do. I argue in the paper that Jesus is not Superman, that Jesus’ humanity is no different from our humanity. I argue that Jesus is the meeting point between what is fully divine and what is authentically human,” she explains. “Jesus is God who has ‘emptied himself’ in order to experience human life, suffering and death, and to bring humanity fully into the divine life.

“This means that, as authentically human, Jesus cannot be capableof anything we are not capable of. If he is not God, or not fully God, then God is no nearer to us than before the incarnation. If he is not authentically human, then it is not humanity that is brought into union with God, but ‘superhero-ness.’”

As for Superman, Babka argues that even though he’s faster than a speeding bullet, “since he’s not human, he can never be what we are.”

— Tiffany Fox

swim4Depression in expectant and new mothers carries a stigma all its own. At a time when most women are overjoyed, some struggle with feelings of melancholy. Left untreated, maternal depression can affect more than a mother’s health; it can put a child’s development and well-being at risk.

Cynthia Connelly, director of nursing research at USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, is leading a $3.1 million, five-year study to identify and treat maternal depression. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, her Perinatal Mental Health Project is the recipient of the largest single grant in the university’s history.

Estimates of maternal depression in new mothers range from 10 to 42 percent, with most of these women undiagnosed and untreated. Through an innovative collaboration, the project will screen up to 5,000 women at routine prenatal visits in community clinics throughout San Diego. Several hundred will likely be identified for follow-up, some with a mental health adviser who will link them to treatment.

“The various academies — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Nursing, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists — all support using screening as a part of the practice,” says Connelly. “But there are terrible cost constraints and time constraints that undermine the best intentions.”

Connelly assembled a multidisciplinary research team to develop a solution. Early work in the project will lead to a bilingual computerized screening program that expectant mothers complete in the waiting room, so that depression care can be incorporated into the visit, if indicated. A key component to this approach is follow-up by a mental health adviser, who will contact at-risk mothers to offer support, advice and referral services.

Connelly and her colleagues will also interview mothers by phone and make in-home visits to gauge changes in depression over time, assess mother/child interactions and check on baby milestone outcomes.

“Women are supposed to be happy when they’re pregnant, but sometimes we forget that it’s too much,” she says. “Some mothers didn’t want a baby at this time, or maybe their husband is out of work. It’s important [for them] to be able to get this support — just to be able to acknowledge that they don’t feel great, that it’s OK to feel sad. Our focus now is on improving access to mental health services for underserved families, but ultimately I hope that we get better access for all people.”

— Trisha J. Ratledge

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