As a crowd counted down from 10, the two swimmers waited to begin the mile swim. Ryan Held, lanky and lithe, had won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. Tim Payne, stocky, muscled and tattooed, had lost both his legs in the war in Afghanistan. At the count’s end, Payne swung forward on his arms and dropped straight into the pool with a splash.
Grinning widely, Held tucked into a cannonball that made a bigger splash, and the two started stroking their way through the big pool at the Triangle Aquatic Center Sunday.
The men were volunteering for Swim Across America, which has raised $70 million for cancer research over the past 30 years. A local swim team, the Meredith Townes Mudpuppies, organized Sunday’s event to honor Dr. Brian Goldman, a master swimmer and founder of the Mudpuppies. Goldman died in 2015 of colon cancer.
Mary DeMilia, who helped organize Sunday’s swim, said she first met Goldman at a masters swim class. Neither knew it, but both had cancer at the time and would be diagnosed in the coming years, DeMilia with stage 3 breast cancer and Goldman with stage 4 colon cancer.
Goldman, who captained the Duke swim team and was staff physician for the N.C. State team, never lost his sense of humor or his upbeat spirit, DeMilia said.
“When Brian was in hospice, he asked the team to come to hospice so he could give them high fives,” she said. “The week before he passed away, he showed up and swam. He showed up.”
Sunday’s swim raised money that will fund leukemia research at the Levine Cancer Center in Charlotte, according to Rob Butcher, CEO of Swim Across America.
The group, which has raised $70 million, has come a long way from its initial event in 1977, a swim across Long Island Sound.
“It raised $5,000, but they managed to sink a $60,000 boat at the same time,” Butcher said. “I think it’s still sunk there today.”
Held, the Olympic gold medalist, is a senior at N.C. State, majoring in forestry. He medaled as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The medal ceremony provided a memorable moment when Held started sobbing during the national anthem. His teammates – Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel – surrounded him with hugs afterward.
“It was my first international meet ever,” Held said Sunday. “My emotions just came forth.”
Sunday’s mile swim was a breeze for Payne, given what the retired staff sergeant has gone through the past six years.
“There was the drug addiction, the suicidal thoughts and depression,” Payne said. “But God had his hand on me, and I’m here now.”
Payne joined the Army after 9/11 and served two deployments in Iraq. On his third deployment in 2011, he stepped on a land mine during a patrol near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. The explosion blew him 12 feet in the air.
A comrade saved his life. In an online video, Specialist Mark Merritt recalled how he put tourniquets on all of Payne’s limbs. The bleeding slowed but didn’t stop. Merritt reached wrist deep into Payne’s abdomen to pinch his femoral artery shut.
Payne lost both legs above the knees, as well as some fingers and and a part of his left arm. He had many surgeries and received more than 100 units of blood.
Recovery was tough. Payne said he became addicted to painkillers and started smoking marijuana. He contemplated suicide and suffered deep depression. Payne was never religious growing up, but in 2014 he began reading the Bible and accepted Jesus Christ into his life.
Payne, who lives in Wake Forest, has written two books about his life with the goal of helping other veterans heal their physical and emotional wounds. His biggest worry is veterans pulling away from friends and family.
“So many of my friends are isolated, pulling back into themselves,” Payne said. “They need to come out of their isolation.”