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Swimmers wrap arms around Olivia Carey

Now fighting cancer, Olivia Carey is a trainer at Island Fitness. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Now fighting cancer, Olivia Carey is a trainer at Island Fitness.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

An islander battling cancer is first honoree in an around-the-island swimming relay.

Olivia Carey is a striking personality and recognizable face.

To those who know her, she’s a devoted friend, instructor and confidant.

Friends say Carey’s life is dedicated to giving. She has been a personal trainer at Island Fitness for five years, and teaches an exotic dance class for women who want to regain sensuality and confidence after rough relationships or battles with disease. Class proceeds go to women’s shelters, and she has given her time and money to women’s causes for 20 years.

For someone so long an anchor for women in need, it could be hard finding the strength to seek out support herself.But since Carey was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer three months ago, she has fought the disease, and her reserved nature, to recover with the help of a community offering comfort and hope.

“When I was diagnosed it was a huge shock. I haven’t been sick in 15 years,” Carey said. “It was pretty serious, and after the initial surgery the doctor said that they wanted to proceed with chemotherapy and I just thought I couldn’t go through with it.

“I thought it would be too much. It was a very dark time for me.”

The day after the surgery Michael and Alexa Rosenthal, Island Fitness co-owners, visited Carey with a large stack of letters and cards from the community. Within days, there was already a trust fund set up to aid her recovery.

“Olivia has become a very good friend, and the thing that gets people by in these situations is the friends who come together and support them,” Michael Rosenthal said. “It was effortless to put it together. We just did what we normally do and the outpouring was phenomenal.”

That outpouring changed Carey’s outlook on her cancer.

While she had been the one to teach recovering women how to regain faith, she now found that strength in herself through the words of friends and strangers alike.

“It brought me to tears. Reading these letters from people I hardly knew, it took my breath away,” Carey said. “I just felt this warmth around me, that I could do this, I could get well. I wanted to know who these people are, to see their faces, to thank them.”

The encouragement convinced her to undergo chemotherapy and turn her box of letters and inspirational stories into an important part of her therapy. More support came in the form of groceries and home-made meals; a close friend, Nancy Blakey, offered her guest house as a place for Carey to heal.

“People here just get it,” said Carey’s friend Sharon Kane. “Some people think that the heart of the island is gone, but the core of people here are fun-spirited and amazingly giving.”

Kane is part of a group organizing a first-ever event to raise awareness and funds for Carey’s medical expenses.

Arms Around Bainbridge will be a 29-mile swim relay around the perimeter of the Bainbridge Island. The goal is to uplift and support an outstanding community member who is struggling with a life-threatening ailment, with a new beneficiary to be named each year.

At first, Carey was not interested in being on the receiving end of a benefit after so much time spent giving, which troubled Kane.

“I felt like saying, ‘Olivia, I know it’s hard accepting things, but what have you been doing for all these other people, you’ve been helping them,’” Kane said. “She’s just a very private, but elegant, person.”

Carey was moved.

“Initially, when I was approached I thought it was too much for me,” she said. “But they described the event and what it is going to do for people in the years to come and I thought, how could I not do this?

“The name, Arms Around Bainbridge, it was exactly how I felt. Whoever is going to go through something similar to my situation will feel like the community’s arms are around them too. I feel honored that they choose me to be the first person to be a part of it.”

The event has gone from concept to starting line in record time, with the support of island swimmers, boaters, kayakers and friends.

The course, being set up by Brian Russell and Paul Webber, will include a counterclockwise swim set to start at 5 a.m. Sept. 1, and finishing around 9:30 p.m.

An estimated 15-20 swimmers will be taking part in the relay race. One of the more advanced swimmers, Orlando Boleda, will try for 10 miles and will navigate the strong currents around Eagle Harbor.

A website designed by Pete and Aleta Saloutos, www.armsaroundbainbridge.com, will soon be updated with the approximate times swimmers in the relay will pass island neighborhoods, for people who want to express their support from ashore.

All the costs involved from the event are being absorbed by the participants. Each swimmer is also donating $100, and all of the proceeds will go directly to helping offset the cost of Carey’s medical treatment.

Arms Around Bainbridge organizers are drumming up community support by displaying posters and asking for donations to the Olivia Carey Special Needs Trust.

“We’re going around to merchants and asking them to post the poster and to go ahead and collect funds. If people think they are going to write a check, hand it to the merchant or drop it off at Island Fitness,” Kane said. “I’ve never walked around and asked merchants for anything, even something as simple as putting a sign up in a window, but this story and this event has given me the courage to do that.”

Kane hopes that in the coming year someone else who is in need of medical support will come forward and benefit from Arms Around Bainbridge.

To Carey, it is an example of just how much a community can heal.

“What is amazing about this community, when you go through something, anything, they give their full support,” she said. “They don’t even have to know you, just know of you, and to me that is extraordinary because it’s not as common we would like it to be.”

“I’m going through cancer, but I don’t feel like I have cancer. The way I look at it, there is so much love that the community has pushed it out. I just feel I have so much more in my life now.”

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Swim team

To learn more about the around-the-island swim, see www.armsaroundbainbridge.com. To aid in Olivia Carey’s recovery, contact Michael Rosenthal at support_for_olivia@comcast.net.

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