Sally Bolar wins four golds at national meet … after battling ovarian cancer

Northwest resident Sally Bolar is a gold medalist, and much more.

Bolar, competing at the National Senior Games in California last month, won four gold medals, a silver and a bronze in her age-group swimming competition.

Of course, she had an advantage, the retired educator said on a recent warm morning at James Kriegh Park, where she trains. At age 70, Sally was "the baby of the age group," which goes to 74. "By the time you're 74, you're competing against 70-year-olds."

Bolar won the 50 and 100 butterflies, the 100 and 200 freestyles. She was second in the 500 free, and third in the 50 free. Bolar's bronze "just wasn't a good race. I just missed the turn." The butterfly is "more my bread and butter stroke.

"My goal was to have a ranked swim, trying for top 10, in every stroke I tried," the Catalina-area resident said. She did much better. "I was so pleased."

Sally Bolar won't make a big deal of it, but her triumphs in the pool are but medals in a much bigger struggle. She is recovering from ovarian cancer, a disease that required surgery and chemotherapy, sapped her strength and kept her out of the pool for many weeks.

"I'd been feeling ill for about nine months before I was diagnosed," Bolar said. "I couldn't recover from workouts, I didn't have any energy, I couldn't eat. I took a hiatus, because I really couldn't."

She was diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer, in the form of a large tumor. "I was very frightened," Bolar said.

Her surgery and treatments were exhausting. "I was pretty well depleted by the end of the experience," Bolar allowed.

But she swam as a guest with the SaddleBrooke Swim Club "basically off and on through chemotherapy. They were very supportive, very kind. At the end of each chemotherapy cycle, I got to swim a little bit." Sometimes, a little bit was all she could manage. "Sometimes, I felt too sick to do anything. But I was able, even when I was at my weakest stage, to do some movement every day. It was a morale booster."

The Stanford meet was Bolar's first national competition in four years. She qualified for it in March 2008, relatively soon after her treatments. "I thought if I could just swim fast enough, to qualify," she'd have a year to train, to recover, and to grow stronger.

Bolar made the qualifying marks in four events. "I was just flabbergasted, and not to mention grateful. Having cancer is a pretty humbling experience."

A national berth in hand, she vowed to "do my best to get ready for it. I did as much as I could, safely, and then let it fall where it will. I knew I was weak, my muscles were weak."

Bolar practiced meditation, and tried acupuncture. She changed her diet, eliminating dairy and sugar, eating fish twice a week, relying upon nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and adding supplements.

"It's those kinds of things that made me feel a little more in control of what was happening," Bolar said. "I could do things for myself." It's been interesting, too, "to find what I can use. It's a real challenge, what feels good, what keeps me energized."

And she swam. Swimming "does something for my feeling of wellness," Bolar said.

She has been a competitive swimmer since age 52. "I thought it looked like fun," said Bolar, who swam for exercise but never against others before then. "I enjoy competition, and the people looked like they were having a good time. I didn't think I was good enough to compete."

She started training, worked on all the strokes, and learned how to make starts and turns. "That first meet was pretty much a joke. My goggles fell off. I was quite nervous. But it was fun, and all the swimmers were fun to be around."

Some take it seriously. "Some of us know we're not going to retire on our endorsements. I take it seriously enough to really do it in earnest. When it's over, it's over."

Bolar's swimming career is not over, and she's grateful to so many people who have helped along the way.

"I feel so fortunate, so grateful for all the services I got," she said. "I learned how helpful that kind of support can be."

There are many to mention — her husband Marlin, the SaddleBrooke club and coach Doug Springer, the University Medical Center, its nurses and staff, people at the Sunstone Cancer Support Centers, people at the Vista de la Montana United Methodist Church, her friends and family … she's afraid to omit anyone.

"There was a very large number of people that I availed myself of their resources," she said. "That was a big plus. You feel buoyed up by it all. It's been an amazing experience for me in a positive way. I wouldn't wish this disease on my worst enemy, but there is some positive, some learning, some growth that comes from an experience like this. Not to mention the gift of each new day. That's the mixture I brought to the swimming meet."

Bolar keeps track of her times on a spread sheet. She needs more time to recover between meets to swim her best. "I'm still trying to build my stamina," she said. "If my times are decent, that's fine. I don't have to win a gold medal every time. It's just fun to play."

Every day, Sally Bolar takes "inventory of what I have," trying "to make the most of it. It's interesting. It's just the way it is, and I'm grateful for the way it is. If I can work around a weakness, fine. If I can't, fine." With the cancer, "you no longer think of yourself as being able to do everything."

Her last chemotherapy was two years before the national meet. "Who'd have thunk it?" she said. "What were the odds, gold medals after I peeled myself off the chair?

"I'm just feeling good. Feeling good's a huge gift."

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