June 30, 2010
Ralph Berry: Making a splash for the kids
Ralph Barry says the children in the Jimmy Fund Clinic, who sign his cap the day before the race, are his inspiration.
In 1997, while flipping through a Boston sports magazine, Ralph Barry saw a call to action that would change the course of his life.
Focusing on judo training at the time, Barry was looking for a new activity to condition his body. Little did he know that the call for swimmers he stumbled across would be a cause he would stay committed to for the next 13 years, and that it would condition his heart and his faith, too.
Barry belongs to a club with two things in common: love of swimming and the desire to fight cancer. Every year a band of Olympians and novice swimmers jump into the Boston Harbor for the Swim Across America Boston Harbor Islands Swim, benefiting the David B. Perini, Jr., Quality of Life Clinic at Dana-Farber. This year's event takes place July 16.
"When I first saw the call to action, my good friend had cancer. I thought I'd give it a try," says Barry. Giving it a try has turned into a tradition. Barry has participated in every Boston Harbor swim except the first.
A 50-year-old ironworker from Jamaica Plain, Barry is something of an ironman. Unlike his fellow swimmers who complete the Boston Harbor Islands Swim as a team relay with heats, Barry swims most of the 22-mile race himself.
What keeps him moving through the cold water, and coming back each year, are the memories he makes visiting children in the Jimmy Fund Clinic the day before the swim, when he has them sign the swim cap he will wear.
"Every year I adopt one of the kids as a spiritual guide," he says. "One year I was visiting with a little girl who was asking me what I see when I swim in the ocean. I told her about the turtles and fish, and she made me a turtle out of a piece of clay. I asked her to sign her name to it, and she wrote out 'Faith.' I almost fell off my chair. I still have that turtle."
The ocean water is cold – usually 65 degrees or colder in mid-July. Even with a wetsuit and swim cap, Barry says, the water can be overwhelming. It doesn't take much, however, to remind him why he swims.
"When I want to stop, I draw on the extra strength of all of those affected by cancer and of the kids that signed the swim cap," he says. "I feel super charged – I feel that power."
A member of Iron Workers Local 7, Barry was part of the crew that built the Smith building, which was completed in 1997. He has inspired his fellow ironworkers to support his Harbor swim year after year.
"Ralph is one of those people who inspires everyone around him," says Kathleen Tetreault, event director for the Boston swims. "He helps the swimmers in the water because he just keeps on going."
– Teresa Herbert