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Tuesday February 12, 2013 Swimming community takes to Twitter to remember former Gators swimmer Lorraine Perkins

Updated: 4:37pm, February 12

Lorraine Perkins

Former UF swimmers Dara Torres, Lorraine Perkins, Paige Zemina and Stephanie Zunich (from left to right).

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The blog you are reading originated from a simple and impactful tweet.

It was Sunday night and I was home relaxing while the final few hours of my birthday ticked away. I checked my Twitter account after spending most of the day away from modern technology. A message earlier in the day from @SportsTough popped up.

The message was a request: can you plz RT for prayers for UF alum swimmer Lorraine Perkins giving the fight of her life to battle cancer #LoveforLola

I had never heard of Perkins nor did I know who operated the @SportsTough Twitter account. Curious, I did a Google search and quickly gathered information on Perkins. Some items of note after clicking through a few pages:

--Perkins was a world-class swimmer during her career at Florida from 1987-91 and competed at the 1988 and ’92 U.S. Olympic Trials and went to Cuba in 1991 with the U.S. Pan American Team.

--She was a standout at Largo High prior to UF, winning state championships in the 100-meter butterfly and 100 backstroke.

--Perkins won four NCAA titles at UF, three on 200 medley and 400 medley relay teams that included future Olympian and UF Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Dara Torres.

--She gained a small measure of notoriety after leaving UF when, according to media reports from the day, Perkins  appeared on an ESPN “Outside the Lines” segment that focused on a history of sexual harassment by former Olympian and longtime swim coach Mitch Ivey, who had taken over the UF women’s swim team late in Perkins’ career and was later dismissed.

Those are some of the quick nuggets revealed about Perkins through that initial Google search. Some others surfaced by pulling her file from the UF sports-information library at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Perkins was signed by former UF coach Randy Reese, and in the official press release announcing her addition, Perkins was joined by two other new signees in Dady Vincent and Stephanie Zunich.

She lived in Sledd Hall when she first arrived on campus. She listed dancing as a favorite hobby. She was interested in becoming a sports psychologist. She was born July 17, 1969.

After the Google search on Perkins, I did a quick search on Twitter to find out more about the account @SportsTough. I noticed the account sent the same tweet that I had received to many others. Some of those people also retweeted the message about Perkins, including ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, ABC’s Josh Elliott, Perkins’ former teammate Dara Torres, former UF swimmer Ryan Lochte and three-time Olympic gold medalist Brooke Bennett.

Who was this @SportsTough? And what could they tell me about the present-day Perkins?

After noticing a “thank you” for the retweet, I sent a direct message to @SportsTough.

Soon, I learned that the woman behind the account was Mary DeMilia, a breast-cancer survivor who had heard of Perkins through Swim Across America, an organization that holds swimming meets around the country to raise money for cancer research and whose motto is “Making Waves to Fight Cancer.”

DeMilia lives in Raleigh, N.C. She didn’t know Perkins personally but felt moved by what she had heard. Perkins was in the final stages of her battle with metastic melanoma – also know as Stage IV melanoma – a deadly form of skin cancer with a 10-year survival rate of less than 10 percent.

Lorraine Perkins

Perkins had battled the disease since November 2007 with many ups and downs. DeMilia was informed that Perkins was recently placed in hospice care, which prompted DeMilia and Bennett to take to Twitter on Sunday to ask for prayers and to honor Perkins.

“We were trying to get her to trend,’’ DeMilia said Monday afternoon. “When we were doing that, we contacted the family and they loved it. She did a trial [study] and it didn’t work [the cancer] off. Do you know how devastating that is? But you know what, the research that came out of that was just incredible.

(Photo: Perkins more recently, via Facebook)

“She’s my hero for what she went through. As a cancer survivor, that could have been me. As a cancer patient, they said if I had waited three more months, I could have been terminal myself. That’s just the angle I have. I just feel this special bond with her and I appreciate what she went through.”

Meanwhile, Bennett’s connection to Perkins is rooted in the Tampa Bay swimming community. While Perkins is about a decade older than Bennett, the two got to know each other last year when the Tampa Bay chapter of Swim Across America held its inaugural swim to raise funds for the Moffitt Cancer Center based in Tampa.

Feeling healthy and energetic, Perkins formed a team to swim in the open-water event. Four days before the swim, however, tests at Moffitt discovered that the cancer had spread to Perkins’ spine. She had to begin treatment immediately and was unable to swim.

Bennett, who won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, empathized with her new friend’s devastating diagnosis.

“It is quite an interesting link when you put the swimming world together. We all kind of consider ourselves family through water,’’ Bennett said Monday. “Instantaneously we just had a connection. Her personality is contagious.

“She was in the Florida sun her whole life. I’ve been in the Florida sun my whole life. You lose someone in your swimming family and you see what it does, it definitely hits very, very hard. Lorraine, until these last days, she was a fighter. It says a whole lot about how swimmers are. You want to make the awareness even stronger for the generation of swimmers now because the sun is even stronger than it was before.”

As they fired off those tweets Sunday evening to see if they could get Perkins to trend, Bennett and DeMilia learned that the 43-year-old Perkins had passed away with her family by her side in Largo. DeMilia sent me a direct message on Twitter to share the news. A sudden sadness swept over me in the knowledge that as I enjoyed the last few hours of my birthday, a woman too young to die had taken her final breaths.

Reese, now coaching in Clearwater at the Long Center, stopped by to pay Perkins a final visit on Saturday afternoon. He recalled Monday afternoon how Perkins never backed down from cancer the same way she fought in the pool.

“She was a very tough competitor and didn’t put up with much if somebody tried to give her some problems,’’ Reese said. “She was a very tough girl, very strong mentally. She didn’t quite have the background of a lot of the people that came in [to Florida] back then, but she still had a lot of success.

“She was really a talent.”

According to Bennett, Perkins asked her family not to hold a memorial service. They plan to hold a celebration of her life in the coming weeks instead.

Meanwhile, as honorary chair of the Tampa Bay chapter of Swim Across America, Bennett is busy planning the organization’s second annual race on May 18 at Clearwater Beach. The organization is also accepting donations on behalf of Perkins, nicknamed “Lola” by her friends and family.

To donate, click Swim Across America’s “Love for Lola” campaign to raise money for cancer research.

Finally, there is also a “Love for Lola” Facebook page set up in memory of Perkins.

“She went down very fast,’’ Bennett said. “We want to make sure people know what kind of fight she put up and to raise awareness for cancer research.”

Bennett and DeMilia didn’t get Lorraine Perkins to trend on Twitter on Sunday night, but they made sure she got a proper goodbye during her final hours.

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