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La Crescenta resident braves swim from Alcatraz to raise money for cancer patients

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This past July, La Crescenta resident Mike Leum participated in a swim back from Alcatraz. Besides braving cold, choppy waters, he raised money for a nonprofit that helps cancer patients connect with bone-marrow donors.
(Courtesy of Mike Leum)

During his 25 years volunteering with Montrose’s search-and-rescue team, Mike Leum has helped save more than 1,000 people.

But the La Crescenta resident’s “far-and-away favorite rescue” didn’t take place on a cliffside or in a rushing river.

It happened in 1999 when he became a then-anonymous bone marrow donor for a 50-something-year-old woman in Indiana. When he met Elaine Gregory a year after the successful transplant — in a surprise visit organized by her daughter — they and their respective families became fast friends, he said.

That’s why when Leum, 57, swam from Alcatraz to the shore in San Francisco last month as part of an annual organized swim, he dedicated it to Gregory.

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He also used the occasion to raise money for Be the Match, an organization that matches patients with bone marrow donors, and it connected him with Gregory. All told, he brought in more than $800 for the nonprofit.

“For whatever reason, God put it in my head to try to help people who are in a really, really bad spot, and I train all the time to make sure I can physically accomplish that,” said Leum, who is a civilian manager with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, aside from volunteering for the search-and-rescue team.

Still, Gregory “is the warrior,” Leum said. “I just gave her the bullets.”

Going strong to this day, Gregory has been able to watch family weddings, the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as take care of her ill husband, who passed away recently, Leum said.

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“She was able to experience a lot of life that maybe she wasn’t going to,” said Leum, explaining why the experience of helping Gregory has been so meaningful to him.

This year, Leum, who has participated in the Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim seven times, swam the mile-and-a-half distance between the storied former prison and the shore in 33 minutes — with Gregory’s name written on his swim cap. His son, Hunter, joined him on the adventure.

There are several obstacles related to swimming from Alcatraz, “which is one of the reasons they put it there,” said Leum, a graduate of Hoover High School.

Those obstacles include, cold, choppy water and the occasional shark. If that wasn’t enough, there is a 4-mph current when swimmers get close to shore.

Studying his GPS after the swim, Leum said he could see exactly where the current was trying to wash him out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge.

While Leum said preparing for the swim and sundry other athletic events he participates in is not easy, he called it “a piece of cake” compared to fighting cancer.

He has several family members who have battled cancer, including his wife, Nancy, who had melanoma, and his mother, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2005.

Another way Leum raises money for those battling cancer is through a group called Climb to Fight. It involves securing sponsors for mountain climbs of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood and other peaks. The sponsors then donate money to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he said.

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Besides raising money, Leum said he hopes he can inspire more people to join the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry.

“That’s what makes this thing work,” he said.

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