Emily Marsh-Fleming: From Pool to Pelotonia
Emily Marsh-Fleming, 38, a national champion synchronized swimmer while an Ohio State undergrad from 1994-97, was well into her cancer journey when she decided to participate in Pelotonia 11.
Until then, her only biking experience involved riding to the pool, classes and home as an Ohio State student. “The first time I set out on my bike, which my dad had disassembled and mailed to me in my freshman year, the seat dropped to the frame because I hadn’t tightened it well enough on the stem,” she recalled. “My legs are long, so it was a hilarious sight, me sitting on the low seat, pedaling across the Oval, knees up to my ears.”
At the time of her death in March 2014, however, she was a veteran of three Pelotonias, riding with a steely resolve to support Pelotonia’s goal of ending cancer.
A resident of Yellow Springs, Ohio, Marsh-Fleming approached cycling with the same determination that made her a nine-time national event champion, a four-time All-American and national team champion, and a 1997 finalist for the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor as a superb student athlete. (She had earned a bachelor’s in microbiology and, in 2004, a master’s in food science and nutrition from Ohio State.)
In 1997-2000, Marsh-Fleming trained with the U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Team and was selected as an alternate for the 2000 Summer Olympic team. In 2003 she was inducted into Ohio State’s Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2013 she was admitted to the United States Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame.
But never in the aquatic arena did she face a challenge as formidable as breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2009 at age 34 while six months pregnant with her son Bryce. Five weeks after giving birth, she began chemotherapy at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Marsh-Fleming then returned to her job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and began radiation therapy in Dayton.
When she learned about Pelotonia, she rode the 43-mile route from Columbus to Amanda in 2011.
Marsh-Fleming described her cancer journey as a bumpy but fairly straight road—until it dropped into a canyon in January 2012: A CT scan showed that her cancer had spread to her bones and liver.
Upon absorbing this news and learning that there was no cure, she declared, “I have to ride 100 miles in Pelotonia.’” She bought a new bike, endured weeks of training with riding pal Jodi Chaiten – also a Pelotonia rider – then completed the 100-mile circuit in Pelotonia 12 as a member of the Pedal Me Pink peloton (riding group), a part of Team Buckeye, Ohio State’s official superpeloton.
“My 2012 ride was driven by a need to prove something to myself, my doctors and every person who might question the mental integrity of a stage-four cancer patient who hops on a bike and sets out to ride 100 miles,” she said.
Hoping to contribute even more to Pelotonia 13, Marsh-Fleming formed The Noble Circle Pedalers peloton, which included several cancer survivors from the Dayton area. “I wanted to help grow the Pelotonia family: more funds for cancer research, which my life depends on; more inspiration for our doctors, patients, families and caregivers; and more healing for our riders,” she explained.
Health complications just before Pelotonia 13 limited Marsh-Fleming’s ride to 75 miles; she met her team “at the top of a hill and we finished together. It was purely emotional spirit and strength.”
Marsh-Fleming’s story has inspired others. Ohio State’s current synchronized swimming team and coach Holly Vargo Brown organized a Sync Cancer swim-a-thon in November 2013 in which current and former team members and others registered to swim one mile for $25 each. It raised $5,000 to support Team Buckeye in Pelotonia 14, in which Marsh- Fleming planned to participate.
“It’s my intention to ride in Pelotonia every year I am on this Earth until Pelotonia has realized its goal,” she said. “My favorite thing about it is the camaraderie around a single lofty goal that no one shies away from.”
Emily Marsh-Fleming certainly didn’t. Her husband, Scott, plans to ride 100 miles this year and to continue the Noble Circle peloton in her memory.
Visit Pelotonia.org to learn more about Pelotonia or to donate to life-saving cancer research.