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Vol. LXVI, No. 19
September 12, 2014
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To Be Young, Gifted and Post-Bac
Wahl Swims Channel with Siblings to Fight Alzheimer’s

On the front page...

Devin Wahl
Devin Wahl

After 11 hours in cold, dark water, whipsawed by currents, scourged by jellyfish and nearly shattered by exhaustion, Devin Wahl stood up on a moonless beach in northern France.

He had just swum 24 miles across the English Channel to raise awareness—and funding—for Alzheimer’s disease.

“I landed at 10 p.m. on July 27, when it was completely dark,” says Wahl, a 24-year-old IRTA fellow. “I stood up, with no one around me. I was extremely proud.”

Sharing the glory, somewhere in the foggy distance, were his sister Danielle, age 21—“she came in 13 minutes ahead of me”—and their 19-year-old brother Dustin. Although Dustin did not complete the swim, he endured a full 7 hours in the chilly Channel waters—a noble effort—before being pulled out for safety’s sake.

Continued...

A 2012 graduate of Colorado College, where he studied neuroscience, Devin is now completing his second year with NIA as a post-baccalaureate IRTA fellow in Dr. Rafael de Cabo’s Laboratory of Experimental Gerontology in Baltimore. Wahl works on several projects involving memory and cognition.

Swimming the English Channel was more than a cool way to spend summer vacation. More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which has touched the Wahl family directly. Devin wanted to help.

“I can clearly remember my Grandpa Jerry, how he deteriorated [from AD],” Wahl says. “He went, within a couple of years, from not remembering a phone number to not remembering his daughter’s name. He would be flipping through photo albums and crying.”

His grandfather passed away. Now a beloved uncle, who also suffers from AD, is “deteriorating really quickly,” Wahl says. The goal of the Channel swim was, in large part, to honor his Uncle Konrad.

Devin, Danielle and Dustin’s dream was to be the first sibling trio to swim the English Channel. Along with 2 other siblings, 5 in all, they grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo. Both parents had been endurance athletes in their prime. Thus genetically endowed, Devin has competed in two Ironman triathlons, both with his father. Both his father, a dentist, and his mother, a high school teacher, encourage their children’s athleticism and support their work on Alzheimer’s awareness.

Dustin, Danielle and Devin Wahl: Their goal was to be the first sibling trio to swim the English Channel.

Dustin, Danielle and Devin Wahl: Their goal was to be the first sibling trio to swim the English Channel.

Photos: Michael Wahl, Michael Petr

“For me it took a year of planning and fundraising,” Wahl says. He sent out countless letters and emails, pumped up his social media and designed a web site called “Wahl Channel Crossing: Three Siblings, One Channel: An Alzheimer’s Awareness Project.”

De Cabo and his laboratory colleagues were extremely supportive of the Channel project, Wahl says; still, postbacs are expected to work extremely hard.

“I’ve been a swimmer all my life,” he says. “For the last year, every day I got up at 4:45, swam from 5:30 to 7:30, got to the lab and worked until 6. Then I would swim and lift weights for 2 hours—I had a coach for weight training.”

To acclimate his body, each evening he would sit in an ice bath for 40 minutes. The water in the English Channel ranges from 55 to 65 degrees during summer months. No wetsuits allowed—only a Speedo, cap and goggles.

“My sister swam the Channel last year,” Devin adds, “so she gave me advice.”

Danielle now holds the record for the fastest American to swim the English Channel in 2013. Since 1875, which marks the first successful Channel swim, the success rate has varied dramatically, depending on conditions.

“We each had a fishing boat with a GPS,” says Wahl. “The captains do this for a living: They calculate by current, weather, swimming speed…You swim alongside the boat, although you’re not allowed to touch it. They feed you from a pole, a basket with food and drink; I ate every 45 minutes, 10 to 15 seconds each time. Then I had the captain screaming at me to keep going.”

It was much harder than he thought it would be. The jellyfish were horrendous—he was stung 8 times, 3 times in the face—and the currents were fierce.

“If you stop to rest 1 minute, you lose 5 minutes,” Devin says. “After 7 hours, I was hallucinating a little bit. I thought I saw my Uncle Konrad on the boat. Eight hours in, I almost lost consciousness. But I kept thinking, Why was I doing this? For Alzheimer’s. I’m passionate about it.”

Wahl works on projects involving memory and cognition

Wahl works on projects involving memory and cognition.

The project has raised more than $17,000 so far. All money goes to the Alzheimer’s Association.

People of his own generation, Wahl says, may consider AD a normal part of aging. “But it is a disease with a biological basis,” he explains, “in which you lose your memory and your sense of identity.”

When he talks about swimming, Wahl shows the competitive edge of a young athlete. But when he talks about science, he envisions a cultural shift.

“Science can be competitive,” he says. “It can also be compassion and camaraderie. So let me share my results. Talk to people, if you see they’re having trouble, help them, be friendly. If you have a talent outside the lab, then use it. Some people have a talent for making very complex things very simple. Go and educate children, take your passions outside the lab to make outreach even better.”

He plans to spend another 8 or 9 months at NIA, finish his fellowship and then apply to graduate school. His goal: to be a professor.

Meanwhile, watch for Wahl and NIA Baltimore’s “A Team” in the upcoming NIH Institute Relay; last October they placed first.

“In the past,” he says, “science has always been about publications and what you do in the lab. That is important, but we also have an obligation to do other things. My motivation was compassion for the millions of people who have Alzheimer’s disease. Trying to make a change outside the lab. Sometimes you have to do something big to make that change.”

For more information about the Wahls’ Alzheimer’s awareness project, visit http://wahlchannelcrossing.org.


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