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Around The World in 11 hours

1 March 2013

(Extracts taken from Khaleej Timesnews report)

While most of us choose to wind down after a hard day’s work, one woman trained long, hard hours in a bid to conquer  ‘The World’ (the set of man-made islands next to Dubai) and raise money for her sick nephew.

In November last year alumna Kate Willoughby '02, braved the open waters in an attempt to swim around Nakheel’s ‘The World’, and the audacious swimmer reigned victorious in her conquest.

The 25km feat saw the swimmer set off from the California coastline at 6.30am. Before the swim, Kate admitted to feeling like an ‘emotional yo-yo’.

The event — raising awareness on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) — is a cause especially close to Kate’s heart as her nephew, six-year-old Harrison Smith, was diagnosed with the condition last year.

A modern day twist on the famous Columbus expedition, Kate is the first person to complete the solo swim around the islands.

As the boat pulled up alongside Kate on her 23rd kilometre, roars of support erupted on board as she turned and waved to onlookers. And in a bid to spur the hearty swimmer on ‘til the end, friends flashed messages of support from Facebook well-wishers.

Waiting to greet Kate over the finish line, friends and family were singing her praises: “She’s doing brilliantly. We’ve been following her progress on Twitter and she’s storming through it,” beamed Alex Smith '98,  father of Harrison.

Kate's sister Donna (Willoughby) '98 and Alex '98 met at Oxford Brookes when they were studying Hotel and Restaurant Management.

As the final metres closed in, cheers from the sideline turned the air electric and as Kate took her final stroke at 5.30pm, Harrison began shouting: “Come on aunt Kate, you can do it.”

After a gruelling 11-hour slog battling waves, fatigue and jellyfish attacks, Kate took her first steps onto the golden sands of California once again, with her mother, Nikkie Morris, making an emotional dash through the shallow waters to embrace the tearful swimmer.

When asked what the biggest challenge was along the way, an exhausted, yet exhilarated Kate told Khaleej Times: “All of it. It just got worse and worse before it got better.”

A proud Harrison, along with his little brother William, then placed medals around Kate’s neck as she fought back the tears.

She continued: “I’m feeling very emotional, but I’m just so pleased it’s done. It’s been horrible and amazing (she laughs). There was no way I was going to stop.”

In the months leading to the swim, Kate’s regime saw her take to the waters at least five times a week, often completing 5km swims straight from the office. The intense training hours left her social life flailing by the waist side: “I’ve definitely had no social life over the past year, so I’m excited to get that back.”

The ‘Swim The World’ idea first got its wings when Kate found out about Harrison’s diagnosis. She felt peoples understanding of DMD was poor and wanted to tackle the issue by raising awareness.

Describing herself as a water baby, Kate set her sights on swimming around ‘The World’ and when she found out no one had attempted the swim, her hunger to be the first became rife.

The initial thumbs up was given last November, but with open water challenges renowned for their notorious unpredictability, planning a safe swim meant un-raveling mother natures many layers. Brendan Jack, Head of Sustainability and Environment at Nakheel, helped compile the route.

Kate praised his efforts: “Without Brendan, none of this would have been possible. He was vital during the planning stages and he was the one that picked the day, November 21, because of the tides and currents.”

Tackling the route with a backbone team, including several kayakers and a Nakheel support boat, Kate attributed a lot of her success to the team. Speaking after the swim she said: “Nakheel have been absolutely instrumental in this whole thing. They have been amazing and I want to say thanks so much to my kayakers, not just for today but every weekend they have given up for training.”

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is an inherited disorder - affecting males only – that involves muscle weakness, which worsens quickly over time. The average life expectancy of those suffering from the condition is around 25 years.

When asked why there is so little awareness about the condition, Alex Smith explained: “The fact that it is never a ‘good news’ story doesn’t help. You don’t survive with DMD and no one likes to hear that.”

Kate added: “We are on a bit of a timeline with this illness. It’s often fatal to sufferers in their early twenties so we want to find a cure and we know it’s possible as the science exists.”

Kate's family and friends are now doing all we can to raise awareness and money to fund research into Duchenne and hopefully find a cure in Harrison's lifetime and all the other children in the UK and globally with the disease. Alex is now preparing for the Average Man to Iron Man competition in March 2013. See their website:http://www.harrisonsfund.com/