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HAMMOCK: Warta swims for son, cancer research

Jonas Warta, 4, is part of the motivation for his mother, Norcross grad and former American record holder Mary Ellen Warta, in her return to swimming at this weekend's Swim Across America event. Jonas lost his right eye and endured six months of chemotherapy over the past year after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma.

Jonas Warta, 4, is part of the motivation for his mother, Norcross grad and former American record holder Mary Ellen Warta, in her return to swimming at this weekend's Swim Across America event. Jonas lost his right eye and endured six months of chemotherapy over the past year after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma.

The situation had its humor.

Mary Ellen Warta, a former American record holder in the breaststroke and now a mother of three, recently returned to the swimming pool for serious training. For someone who once swam in some of the world's biggest meets, the Forsyth County YMCA seemed an odd fit.

"I looked over to one side and there were 3-year-olds taking swim lessons," said Warta, a 1991 Norcross grad whose major swimming accomplishments came under her maiden name of Blanchard. "There were 60-year-olds and up doing water aerobics on the other side. And there was me in the middle."

Warta tells the story in a humorous way, yet she is serious about the reason she's trained so hard the past three months --this weekend's Swim Across America cancer research fundraiser at Lake Spivey in Jonesboro. A former Stanford swimming teammate encouraged her to join the event, which has a more personal meaning for Warta than it would have not too long ago.

Last year her son Jonas, now 4, endured a scary battle with cancer.

Not long after his 3-year-old checkup, one of Jonas' preschool teachers noticed that one of his eyes was glassy. A whirlwind few days resulted in the frightening diagnosis --retinoblastoma.

The tumor was so large that Jonas had redeye in photos in one eye, but not the other. Doctors estimated that he had been slowly going blind in his right eye for six to eight months. He was likely six weeks away from the tumor finding its way into his optic nerve.

Doctors removed the eye, replaced by a prosthetic now, and still found traces of the cancer, so Jonas suffered through six months of chemotherapy.

But his last two MRI reports have been clean, welcome news for the family.

"He's doing good," Mary Ellen Warta said. "He looks like a different kid. Chemo just destroys a kid, as it does an adult. He was so exhausted, so thin. He had that gray look, thinning hair. Now that he's off chemo, he looks like a healthy 4-year-old."

He's also a 4-year-old inspiration, the focal point of Team Jonas in Swim Across America this weekend. Each team in the event swims for a child and Jonas' team will feature a group of swimmers from Dynamo, the club where his mother got her start in year-round swimming back in the 1980s.

"That was very emotional," Warta said of Dynamo's involvement. "I was very touched. To have them want to swim for Jonas, it was very emotional for me. It definitely gave me the enthusiasm to get back in the pool again."

This weekend's swim will be one of Warta's last for a while in Georgia. She and her husband Geoff, who also have two daughters, are relocating later this month to Oregon.

But the family still plans to continue fundraising in Jonas' honor with the J.G. Warta Foundation, which is in the works.

"We're moving, but (the foundation) will benefit the AFLAC Cancer Center (at CHOA) here in Atlanta," Warta said. "They're the ones who did so much to help Jonas."

Those who want to support Team Jonas, and his mom's return to the pool, this weekend can visit www.swimacrossamerica.org/goto/mw.

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.