Name: Nancy Milner
Occupation: Papermaker, Baker, Retired
Local Team: Oregon Reign
As told to Arlene Delmage
After seeing Nancy at Long Course Nationals in Mission Viejo last summer, August 2019, I knew I had to spotlight her. For those of us who know Nancy, the fact that she is even alive is miracle enough. But to see her at Nationals competing in the 200 Free, 400 Free, 800 Free, and the Women’s 200 Medley Relay, well, that was really astounding. She earned an individual medal in the 800 Free and helped score points for Oregon. Here is Nancy’s story.
When I was a kid growing up in Sacramento, there were no swimming pools in the area. When I was five, they built a pool close to us, and we all loved it because there was no air-conditioning. Parks and Rec started a swim team, the Fulton El Camino Stingrays, and there were 150 kids on the team all wanting to cool down! In the summers we went to the pool three times a day, morning and night for swim practice, and afternoons for playing around. The practices did not have much structure; basically it was just getting from one side to the other as fast as possible. It was always fun which is what kept me coming back.
In my part of California, in the 1960s, there were no women’s swim teams in high school. When I graduated from high school I decided that Sacramento was too small for me. With $20 in my pocket I left home and hitchhiked to Portland.
I had a great aunt that lived in Oregon City. I got a job pumping gas for 10 years, and then I worked in a framing factory. One day I picked up a hitchhiker, and he said they were hiring women at the paper mill, so I went there and got a job. I had that job for 20 years.
In 1978 a 3000-pound roll of paper fell on me and broke my femur. I couldn’t walk but I could swim. I went to the YMCA, got a membership, and started swimming 5 days a week. Later I discovered that Mount Hood Community College had an outdoor pool. There is absolutely nothing like swimming outside with the sun shining and oxygen to breathe. I also discovered an amazing Masters swim team, the Mount Hood Masters. This is what the team was called before they merged with Portland Wet Masters in 2008 to form Oregon Reign.
Life was going along pretty well until 2010, which is when I was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer. Multiple myelomas causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow where they crowd out healthy blood cells. Needless to say this changed everything. I can’t remember all the medical appointments and hospital stays, but I just want to say that I have an amazing partner, Pam, and I would not be alive today without her. She has been by my side every step of the way, including moving up to Seattle when I was going through my stem cell transplant treatment. I spent most of 2010 and 2011 in the hospital. Pam’s background as a medical technologist was very helpful.
I don’t want to focus on all the cancer treatments, but it is hard to talk about this without bringing up swimming. My teammates and coaches at Oregon Reign have been amazing and supportive. So many people have helped me out along the way and I just want to mention a few of them:
- Carole Miles wrote a blog for me
- Buz Carriker managed all my bills.
- Linda Bley, an epidemiologist, fought the insurance companies on my behalf. She would get up at 5:00 a.m. and call the Social Security office to deal with my retirement benefits. She is truly an amazing person.
- Ron ‘I’d rather be golfing’ Nakata offered to pay the bills that my insurance would not cover. In the end, with Linda’s help, my insurance did pay so Ron did not have to, but he offered which is amazing.
- Christy Gustafson was there every step of the way.
- Allen Larson gave me a medical bed after his father died. This was so helpful because the bed moved up and down.
- Colette Crabbe or one of her daughters walked my dog every week. She would make me go with her on the walk!
- Ann Goodman made me a hanging quilt out of a t-shirt that I brought back from Australia.
- Dennis Baker, my coach, pushes me beyond the limits I thought I could swim. He gave me a scholarship, helped me work on my strokes, and encouraged me to go to Nationals. Above all, he has been a great friend.
This brings me to the 2019 Mission Viejo Nationals. Ron Nakata talked me into going. A few years ago Ron said he was looking forward to turning 80. I said, “Ron, if you go to Nationals, I will go with you”. And that is how I ended up at the 2019 Nationals against all odds. Ron and his wife Wanda took me under their wing and supported me. Nationals was such a great experience for me, but extremely physically draining as well. My best memory is of the 400 free. The Oregon swimmers were so supportive and encouraging. It wasn’t easy. I had a hard time breathing and had to roll over on my back to get air. It was a struggle but I finished. Yes, I did, I finished. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the support and what it means to me.
As I said, Nationals was extremely physically demanding for me. I was sweating through five t-shirts a night so I knew the cancer was coming back. I haven’t swum since Nationals. There is no cure for my cancer but I am going through a difficult chemotherapy regime where they use mustard gas (yes the same type they used in WWI and WWII to kill people). It kills the cancer but it also kicks my butt.
Despite all this, I have so much to be thankful for. Family is such a joy. When I married my partner, I married a family. We have four grandkids and one great-grandchild. I play the accordion, but I like to play when Pam is not home! It’s better when she is not here!! I like to make sourdough bread and pancakes with my grandchildren. My grandad taught me how, and when I bake I hear him talking to me. I taught my grandson to make bread. I love that I have passed that on to him. It goes to the soul.
I feel blessed that I have never been a fast swimmer because I’ve never burned out. The reason I am still alive is because of this pool, the exercise, the community.
I’ve really learned how amazing Oregon Masters swimmers are.
Nancy, you are truly amazing and an inspiration to me. I love swimming with you at practice. Please kick that cancer’s butt!
Looking forward to to seeing you back in the pool. Ellen
Way to hang in there Nancy! I enjoyed reading about you and your swimming at Nationals.
Thank you Arlene for spotlighting “our Nancy”. She is truly an amazing person and an inspiration to us all. We’ve lost track of the number of times Nancy has been in and out of remission over the past 10 years, but through it all she continues to focus on swimming, getting so much enjoyment from it – swimming feeds her soul. One of my best memories was swimming alongside Nancy during the mile swim at the state meet in Hood River several years ago. It’s the first time I swam a mile in a meet (not my event!) and we filled each of the lanes with everyone from our old Mt Hood Masters group, including Kristi who arrived late and ran out onto deck still putting her suit on and getting to the blocks just on time. As I recall, Nancy beat me.
I was fortunate to drive down to Sweet Home, stay overnight at a cute little motel, and swim at the Foster Lake cable swims the next day with Nancy. It’s not often one gets the chance to talk frankly with someone about staring death in the face so many times and how that affects living. Thank you so much Nancy for being so open and frank and courageous. And thank you Arlene for writing this up and for all the selfless teammates who have done so much for Nancy.
Nancy is fabulous! Ron and I had so much fun traveling to CA with her. Her sense of humor is what I love the best!! She always makes me laugh even when I am traveling with a broken ankle. We have been the recipient of some of her good homemade goodies. I think Nancy Is one if the most level headed and strongest women I have ever known. If you have a chance to spend personal time with Nancy and Pam run don’t walk for the chance!!!!
What a beautiful interview of an inspiring person…thank you so much! This really illustrates how teammates become besties.
A truly amazing human being. Her story is beyond remarkable.
I am so glad I had this opportunity to work with Nancy and tell her story. She said to me “I’ve never told my life story before” and she was very happy to have this article published. Nancy’s sense of humor was always present when we were discussing what to include and what to leave out. She has so many funny stories and I am fortunate that I was able to hear some of them. Her love of family, friends, and community was very evident.
Nancy, I remember visiting you in the hospital when you got hurt at CZ. You worked with my dad. He would like to get back in touch.