Cancer-fighting crew encourages others to get back in their boat

Team We Are Ocean will race April 2 in an outrigger canoe, crossing the channel from Catalina Island to Newport Beach.
We Are Ocean paddlers Kelly Schwartz, JoJo Toeppner, Elaine Kaspar, Laura Ricker, Claire Kennedy, Sheila Conover Doyle and Jack Marshall Shimko and Newport Aquatic Center executive director Billy Whitford.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A cancer diagnosis is not something people are prepared to hear, but when Jack Marshall Shimko learned that he would have a second battle in August, he knew he was done letting the disease put him on the sidelines.

Shimko, the founder and director of the We Are Ocean cancer program at Newport Aquatic Center, has made it his mission to help those fighting cancer live life to the fullest by taking them on adventures and challenging them.

The latest endeavor will see a group of cancer fighters — Team We Are Ocean — enter the Puakea Designs Wild Buffalo Relay on Sunday, April 2. It will involve a 32-mile paddling race in an outrigger canoe, crossing the channel from Catalina Island to Newport Beach.

“I’m done letting this disease take over my life, and [that of] a bunch of people that are super close to me,” said Shimko, who was first diagnosed in 2009 and is currently fighting chronic lymphocytic leukemia. “I’m done with it, and I just want to fight back the best way I can. The best way that I can is I run this rad program that takes cancer patients and survivors on ocean adventures and [to] support camps.

“I also want to show people that cancer isn’t going to take us out from entering a 32-mile, open-ocean, channel-crossing race with 235 elite paddlers. We will come in dead last, but we will have the biggest smiles on our faces.”

Team We Are Ocean will be padding out with members of Operation OpenWater, a Huntington Beach-based nonprofit that similarly focuses on enriching the lives of those who have served in the military and as first responders through adventures on the water.

Shimko said there will be paramedics on support boats, and members of Team OpenWater will be jumping in the six-man canoe at different times to help them complete the crossing.

We Are Ocean is looking to raise approximately $30,000 to send 18 individuals to a cancer support camp. The camp is available to those between the ages of 15 to 39. About $18,000 has been raised so far, Shimko shared.

“There are 18 participants and 12 staff,” Shimko said of the camps. “We spend a week out on [Catalina] Island, and the number one thing that’s most important is that they’re able to connect with other people that have gone through similar things.

“We take them stand-up paddling, we take them outrigger canoeing, we go diving, we go fishing, we go snorkeling, we go ziplining, but the number one thing that I’ve seen in these camps and that connects for these people to stay in contact for the rest of their lives is when they’re sharing in the bonfire the deepest, darkest, scariest moments of their life and everyone understands it.”

Kelly Schwartz, a manager for Newport Aquatic Center and the race director for the Pukea Designs Wild Buffalo Relay, said a raffle has helped support causes in the past, and she wanted We Are Ocean to be the benefactor this year. An outrigger canoe will be raffled off, she said.

“We would still pick them even if they didn’t put together a team,” Schwartz said. “The fact that they wanted to put together a cancer team and do that was just pretty rad.”

We Are Ocean cancer program stand for group photo at NAC on Thursday.
Billy Whitford, executive director, NAC; Kelly Schwartz, race director, NAC manager; paddlers Claire Kennedy, Laura Ricker and Elaine Kaspar; Sheila Conover Doyle, NAC Olympic pro paddler; JoJo Toeppner, NAC paddler; and Jack Marshall Shimko, founder of the We Are Ocean cancer program stand for group photo at NAC on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Schwartz added that the race starting point is moving from Two Harbors to Avalon, making it about 8 miles shorter.

Claireliese Kennedy, 27, in remission for her battle with Stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma, will be one of the We Are Ocean team members. Formerly a rower at Orange Coast College, Kennedy said she just earned a degree in political science and international affairs from UC Riverside.

Kennedy, who started a support group called Lymphoma Ladies when she finished chemotherapy in August, said she’s embracing the opportunities in front of her, including the upcoming race.

“It almost was taken from me, this life, and I just want to live all of it,” she said. “Every single thing I can, I want to feel it, I want to do it, and that’s a beautiful thing that I took away from this really difficult experience.”

Danny Nichols, co-founder for Operation OpenWater, said the organization’s relationship with We Are Ocean started last year. Training sessions for the race have formed an instant bond, and he has noticed synergy between the groups.

“You have no control when you’re in the ocean,” Nichols said. “You have to 100% surrender to the elements. You can’t control the wind. You can’t control the swell. You can’t control the current. You have to surrender all of that. The only thing you can control is your attitude and your actions. When you have that type of surrender out there, there’s a lot of power in that healing.

“It’s a great metaphor for life because we have no control over people, places and things. Stuff happens, but we can focus on our attitude and our actions. I think the crew from We Are Ocean is a great example of that.”

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