Firefighter paddles for charity

OKEECHOBEE — Jessica Sasser, a firefighter with Okeechobee County Fire Rescue, paddled over 80 miles from the Bahamian island Bimini to Lake Worth Beach. on June 15.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Jessica Sasser
Jessica Sasser on the Flying Fish paddle board she used to make the trip from Bimini to Lake Worth.

The trip was part of a fundraising event called “The Crossing For Cystic Fibrosis.” The crossing is held to raise money for Piper’s Angels Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funding to help those battling cystic fibrosis.

Over 220 paddlers took part in the event this year and over $630,000 was raised for Piper’s Angels. It was Jessica’s second year making the trip.

“Paddling 80 miles in one go is the hardest thing I’ve had to do physically, mentally and emotionally,” explained Ms. Sasser. “This was my first-ever endurance event and I had no idea what to expect last year. When I was training, many told me that long distance paddles are based on about 10% equipment, 10% physical and 80% mental. When the adrenaline wears off, you’re exhausted and everything hurts, that’s when you start overthinking. Last year we had perfect conditions and only had a little wind and chop towards the end. My challenges then were mostly hydration, nutrition and sun exposure since I wasn’t that prepared.”

This year stormy weather in the area made for slightly less than favorable conditions, but the group persevered and were able to finish their journey. Jessica, who used a stand-up paddle board to make the trip, says that maintaining mental focus was crucial in completing the crossing.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Jessica Sasser
Jessica Sasser stands on a podium in Lake Worth after making the 80-mile journey.

“We had wind at our backs and 3-4-foot chop with a few 5-foot swells,” Jessica said of the conditions on the ocean. “I was more prepared this year and timed breaks on my board at an average of two-hour intervals. I had to paddle as hard as I could to get out of the track of a freighter just before sunrise. It took me just over 15 hours to complete the crossing this year and the last 15 miles were the hardest. I can’t tell you how many times I fell off or onto my board.”

Cystic fibrosis is a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Patient Registry, more than 30,000 people are living with cystic fibrosis in the United States and approximately 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed each year.

Each participant in The Crossing For Cystic Fibrosis raised at least $1,500 for Piper’s Angels.

“I definitely plan on participating next year,” said Jessica of the 2020 crossing. “Feeling your toes leaving the sand in Bimini, pushing every physical limit paddling through the gulf stream and finally touching the sand again in Lake Worth Beach proves that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, work hard and never give up. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many cystic fibrosis warriors through the foundation and their outlooks on life are inspiring. The way I see it, I can paddle for a few grueling hours because it doesn’t even compare to what they face every single day. I paddle for those who can’t, so I plan on doing this every year for as long as I’m physically able.”

Currently, there is no cure for cystic fibrosis. However, specialized medical care, aggressive drug treatments, and therapies, along with proper CF nutrition, can lengthen and improve the quality of life for those with CF. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the average life span for people with cystic fibrosis who live to adulthood is about 37 years.

Piper’s Angels directs the money they raise into two channels, financial contributions to research toward a cure and funding programs directly affecting the quality of life for people with cystic fibrosis. You can donate directly to Piper’s Angeles online at pipersangels.org.

“I would like to thank everyone here in Okeechobee who contributed to Piper’s Angels,” said Jessica. “I had the support from many of my fellow firefighters, nurses and law enforcement officers that tracked my progress during the paddle and some were even at the beach landing when I finished. Without my family, the volunteers, including my boat captain and crew, I would not have made it across the Gulf Stream.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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