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Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Swimming upstream

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Jodi Jaecks
Jodi Jaecks, right, with her girlfriend Alicia Berger, had a double mastectomy in 2011. She'd like to swim topless in public because she now has nothing to hide.

When you go for your next swim at your local pool, there probably won't be mini-cams and reporters scribbling in pads waiting.

When Jodi Jaecks does it, there will be.

That's because Jaecks is going to do it topless.

It's not what you think. Jaecks doesn't have breasts. They were removed in a double mastectomy in 2011 after she'd developed breast cancer. This February, as a way to help recover, the athletic, 47-year-old Seattle chef wanted to go for a swim at the Medgar Evers public pool near her home. But wearing a full swimsuit or a bikini top caused her searing pain. She told the pool's aquatics director that she was going to swim topless instead.

Uh, well, that was going to be a problem. After all, there's a sign posted right in the window that reads: This is a family recreation facility. Please dress and act accordingly.

Sorry but that won't be allowed. Jaecks left the pool without her swim.

Four months later, a Seattle weekly newspaper, The Stranger, got wind of what happened. Next thing you knew, Jaecks was a walking, breathing issue.

"That should keep kids up at night," Pam Durant wrote in an email to the Seattle Times. "Where will it stop? Would we want to see a man's genitals so we can become aware of testicular cancer?"

"So a man with breasts can swim topless," a poster identified only as "Allyn" wrote on a message board, "but a woman without breasts can't. Sexism much?"

The surgery removed not only Jaecks' breasts, but her nipples, too. There are only two scars there now. Her body looks mostly like that of a tightly built man with a very thin waist.

The pain is mostly gone these days, but "I just couldn't see wearing one of those mastectomy suits with the prosthetic breasts sewn in," she says. "I kept trying different ones but they didn't fit. Seems like it'd be hard to swim with those weights on your chest. And I just realized, 'This is silly. There's nothing to cover up.'"

In fact, she kicks herself for not just walking into that pool in a pair of swim trunks and a towel and swimming without asking permission. "Nobody would've noticed," she guesses. "I get called 'sir' all the time."

But then, last Thursday, Seattle Parks and Recreation director Christopher Williams stepped in. He's getting chemotherapy for lung cancer himself. He called Jaecks and apologized, then reversed the ruling. He said Jaecks -- and only Jaecks -- could swim in Seattle's public pools topless, and only during adult-swim periods.

That only poured unleaded all over this thing.

The cons: This is not about swimming. This is about a lesbian trying to make a statement.

The pros: Hundreds of women in Washington alone get double mastectomies every year. Why a rule for just her?

Jaecks is disappointed that the rule only applies to her. She vows not to dip so much as a pinkie toe into a pool until the rule covers all double-mastectomy women. And she knows a lot of them.

"I'm hearing from all kinds of cancer-surviving women, all over the world, who want to swim with me," she says. "Maybe we'll have a swim-a-thon."

That got Williams to thinking maybe he should've done more. Monday, he met with Jaecks to see what can be done to make Seattle pools more "inclusive."

Jodi Jaecks
Jodi Jaecks wants people to know that, despite her cancer and its aftermath, life goes on.

Jaecks thinks she'll know by the fall.

Me, I know right now.

This is not a nudity issue. This is a changing-times issue.

As happens to approximately 10,000 women every year in this country, both of Jodi Jaecks' breasts were suddenly gone. Only 37 percent of women who have breasts removed get reconstructive surgery to replace them. These women live among us every day. What's to offend? There's nothing to see here, folks. Literally.

Some pools in the world still insist women wear swim caps. If she lost all her hair, would they make her wear one? If a restaurant employee has no hands, must he still wash them before he goes back to work?

Is it too hard on our kids, on us, to see scars where breasts used to be? Are we that void of compassion that we can't stand to look? Does that mean we don't want our kids seeing the leg stumps of a soldier who's going for his daily swim?

Jaecks made the decision to have her breasts removed after seeing a photo on Flickr.com of a woman post-double mastectomy on a beach, shirtless, with her two kids. "She was beautiful and healthy and fit," Jaecks remembers. "She just looked so joyful." It gave her the courage to do it herself.

So, yes, Jaecks is making a statement here. And it's this:

"I had cancer. I lost my breasts. There's hundreds of thousands of us out there. And more every day. It's not the end of the world. We go on. We swim. We live. We accept it. Why can't you?"