Jon Domres was having a typical spring Saturday morning as he grumbled his way to practice at the Koessler Athletic Center.
The senior on the Canisius men's lacrosse team was going through a typical student-athlete internal rant, lamenting that he had to be up early for practice while the rest of the student population got to sleep and recover from Friday night festivities.
But then, he walked past the conditioning room and saw two of his assistant coaches getting in a three-mile run before practice. His grumbling was replaced with gratitude. Brendon Burke and Brian Lalley were training to participate in the one-mile open water swim for Carly's Crossing, and Domres saw this event was something his coaches took seriously.
"They're always the ones making us run. They're the ones putting us through misery," Domres said. "I remember walking through Koessler and thinking how everyone else gets to sleep in on Saturday when I saw Burke and Lalley running. That's when it first hit me they were really dedicated to this mile swim."
Domres was going to participate with Burke and Lalley in Sunday's Carly's Crossing event at Gallagher Beach, but an injury is keeping him out of the water. Still, for Domres the event hits close to home. Carly's Crossing raises money for Carly's Club -- a part of Roswell Park Cancer Institute that focuses on supporting programs to help children diagnosed with cancer and their families along with raising money for research on pediatric cancers. Domres, a native of Hamburg, is an alumnus of Carly's Club. In 2002 at the age of 13, he was diagnosed with Stage One Anaplastic Large B Cell Lymphoma. After two months of treatment, Domres was in remission.
As a student-athlete at Canisius, Domres became involved in the men's lacrosse community service activities, helping guide the Golden Griffins in fundraising efforts for the HEADstrong Foundation, created in memory of a men's lacrosse player from Hofstra who died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But as players and coaches met last year, they decided they wanted their community service project to be something that stayed in the community. In part because of Domres' connection, the team has spent time visiting the Carly's Club pediatric cancer unit at Roswell Park. The event, Carly's Crossing, seemed like a perfect fit for an event and Burke was up for the challenge.
"We really wanted to bring something back to the community of Western New York as a whole and go beyond something that was just lacrosse oriented," Burke said. "The Ride for Roswell [the annual fundraising bike ride] goes to the same organization, but as a team, we spent time with the kids and families of Carly's Club all year. Doing Carly's Crossing was something really special for us."
Burke has competed in triathlons so he has some experience in open water swimming, yet he and his wife have spent most of their Carly's Crossing training in the pool, using the Flickinger Aquatic Center because the Canisius College pool is closed for summer renovations. Burke thought this event, which requires fundraising along with participation, was a great way to help make an impact.
"I did a triathlon a couple of years ago but this will be the first open water event for my wife," Burke said. "We've been swimming laps in the pool to get ready and swam open water a few weeks ago. She didn't have a problem. Open water is completely different. You can't see the bottom and it can be difficult to get your rhythm with people all around you. In a triathlon, it's very chaotic."
But the chaos of a triathlon open water swim is largely absent from the Carly's Crossing experience. In its ninth year, the event give participants three options, beginning with a timed mile swim followed by the "non-competitive waves" including distance options of a mile and 600 yards.
Participants must raise a minimum of $100 while those under 9 years old are required to raise $75. Pre-registration can be done online at carlyscrossing.com. Limited registration on Sunday is available for the 600-yard swim. Day-of registration closes at 7:30 a.m.
The event has grown. Two years ago it bumped from an average of 200 swimmers up to right around 300 and last year it drew nearly 400 swimmers of all ages and abilities.
For those looking to try open water swimming, this is one of the few opportunities in Western New York and likely the one with the most safety nets.
"In terms of course, Carly's Crossing has a great course," said Joe Zwierzchowski, founder of the event and an avid open water swimmer. "It's a triangular course all inside the breakwall, so usually we don't have to worry about anything more than a little chop depending on the weather. We have lots of support -- the Coast Guard is there, Hamburg rescue, Buffalo police, scuba divers. And each group is escorted by a kayaker. It's really one of the safest open swims I've ever been a part of."
It's also one of few open water events in Western New York outside of a triathlon. There are few spots along Lake Erie where open water swimmers have access to the lake. With hopes of expanding and perhaps attracting more open water swimming in the area, the competitive one-mile event at Carly's Crossing will be electronically timed by Score-This!!!
"I don't think this area does enough to support open water swimming and we should be welcoming things like this," Zwierzchowski said. "I think there's more interest in open water swimming generally since it became an Olympic sport. I think people really enjoy it more than they used to. The Carly's Crossing venue at Gallagher Beach is just amazing. I'd love to see an open water series or a collegiate challenge happen there. It's great not just for the swimmers but for the spectators as well."
Domres might be just a spectator for this Carly's Crossing, but the Canisius senior remains enthusiastic, not just about Sunday's event, but about his team's continual partnership with Carly's Club. Domres has helped his teammates through a series of visits to children at Roswell Park, and each time he's there, his own story of remission and athletic success brings a bit of hope to another family.
"I remember when I was there and the University at Buffalo baseball team came to visit and I wanted to be just like them," Domres said. "When we go there now, I can see it in their eyes that it's something special we're dong. We're a small-time Division I school and we're a lacrosse program which isn't big-time in college athletics. But we really make a difference for these kids.
"I often talk to the parents. I see them at their all-time low, watching their kids suffer. Then I tell them my story and it puts a whole ray of light into their lives. I get chocked up just talking about it but I hope to show them that there is more to their life after a year of hell."