Work for Cure, Love of Swimming Fuel Rick Colella

Feature by Jeff Commings

SEATTLE, Washington, July 13. RICK Colella is happy to talk about the two world records he set last weekend at the U.S. Masters long course nationals, but the energy in his voice peaks when he starts discussing his role in eradicating a disease that affects a member of his family.

Colella's son, Brian, was diagnosed in 2004 with a form of muscular dystrophy called facioscapulohumeral disease (FSH), which deteriorates muscles primarily in the face, arms and upper body. In his efforts to talk to doctors about a cure, Colella was shocked by what he was told.

“We found that there was no treatment or cure,” he said. “They didn't have any guidance for us.”

Colella and his wife, Terry, were not happy with that news. Not long after Brian's diagnosis, they founded Friends of FSH Research, which has been raising money devoted specifically to increasing research and knowledge of FSH, and hopefully, find a cure that can help their son and many others around the world afflicted with the disease.

The money has helped facilities such as the University of Washington-Seattle and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center kickstart FSH research, Colella said.

“We feel proud that we've turned Seattle into this major center for research,” Colella said.

Muscular dystrophy affects people in different ways, but the main cause is a genetic defect that allows a certain protein in the body to attack muscles and break them down. The most severe case of muscular dystrophy attacks the heart and lungs, causing death. FSH is less severe, but can cause death if the body is too weak to fight infections.

Brian Colella's condition has not spread to the point that he's unable to walk, Colella said, and he hopes a cure is found before his son is forced to get around via wheelchair.

“The way the disease goes is that the average patient is in his late teens when diagnosed, and it gets worse,” Colella said. “People are in their 40s and 50s when they have trouble walking or end up in wheelchairs.”

Colella said his swimming friends have always donated money to his annual auctions, but he doesn't think he can pull together a swimming fundraiser that could raise enough money to make the effort worthwhile. Swim Across America, by comparison, is raising money for cancer research, which affects nearly every family and can draw large numbers. A disease like FSH, Colella said, might not attract enough people to raise the funds needed.

“We found that the charity auction format seems to bring in the most amount of money,” he said.

An Olympian effort in the pool

The increasing possibility of a cure could be one reason why Colella is swimming fast at 61 years old. Finally having a coach on deck during morning workout is another big reason.

For a long time, Colella and other swimmers would gather at a local pool and essentially make up the workout on their own. The only drawback, Colella said, is that there was little motivation to do sprint workouts.

Now, with Becca Watson on deck, Colella has felt a lot stronger in the water — and attendance at workouts has increased.

“She makes it so much fun that we don't want to miss workouts,” he said. “Even though it happens to be 6 in the morning, we still enjoy it.”

The success showed last week at the Masters nationals in Omaha, Neb., where Colella obliterated the world records in the 400 IM and 200 breast for the 60-64 age group. His time of 5:11.73 in the 400 IM took 17 seconds off Lawrence Day's standard, and the 2:42.84 smashed rival Tim Shead's mark by four seconds.

Breaking the record in the 200 breast may have been a little redemption for Colella, who broke the world record in the 100 breast the day before, but finished second to Shead by .17 seconds.

“I was really happy about the 400 (IM), but I was generally pleased with the way I swam in Omaha,” he said.

Colella has been racing in Masters meets since 1977, but his notoriety in the sport goes back a few more years. He represented the United States at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in the 200 breaststroke. He finished fourth in 1972, but won bronze in 1976.

Colella got more actively involved in Masters in 1990. He says he “sporadically” attends competitions, but when he does, he makes it count. He's broken nearly 20 national records and about a dozen world records in his Masters career, and three of those world records still stand in the 55-59 age group.

With his children now grown, and with retirement from Boeing working in flight operations engineering looming, Colella said he might attend meets more regularly. His main reason for going to meets is not to break records, but to hang out with friends who get him excited about the sport.

“I like the camaraderie, the way the swimming group is like a family,” he said. “It's fun to be around people who are so excited about it and accomplish something they've never done before.”

(To donate to Friends of FSH Reasearch, visit their website.)

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