Owner of the Swim and Run Shop has so far beat the odds against pancreatic cancer

kjones@idahostatesman.comJune 30, 2013 

A woman steps out of the dressing room, hesitantly modeling a new swimsuit. Anyone - any woman - who has tried on a swimsuit knows the feeling of vulnerability, frustration, resignation. But not everyone has tried on a swimsuit with Nina Shelton in the vicinity.

Before the customer asks for help, Nina simply offers it. With a warm smile and grace that is both confidence and comfort, she heads to the dressing room.

She says: "The straps are too long. Here. Look."

Nina turns the woman toward the mirror and demonstrates. They both smile. The tension dissolves. It's just right.

"My daughter asks me, don't you want to retire? I say, no. I still enjoy it."

Nina was born 75 years ago, and it would be entirely appropriate for her to retire. But all her life, she's been that way - involved, engaged, engaging, gregarious and generous of spirit.

She's also feisty, tenacious and independent. And, in many ways, a pioneer.

Nina grew up in times that did not favor strong, confident women, let alone successful, independent businesswomen. But in doing so and being so, Nina is one of those women who blazed a trail - even if it was a trail she didn't even know she was blazing.

"You can't put your finger on these grandiose things that she's done because she's just been subtle all her life," says her daughter, Becky Schweinberg.

Nina has run the successful Swim and Run Shop for 30 years - begun in the days where her husband's signature was expected for the paperwork. Nina drew herself up straight and told the banker that is was her loan.

She raised four daughters on her own and insisted they go to college - as she had - and why wouldn't a woman go to college? she asks rhetorically.

She has been a swimmer all her life - never competitively because that wasn't "ladylike" in her day - but has supported and suited up an uncountable number of Treasure Valley swimmers for decades.

And when the doctor told her to go home and sign up for hospice because she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she found another doctor.

She says: "Determination."

That, plus swimming, plus, she would say, the support of family and friends, is the thread that weaves through Nina's life. (Her name is pronounced like the number nine plus "ah.")

Nina's father was a lifeguard on Lake Ontario, and her grandparents had a cabin on a lake in Maine, so she's always been a swimmer. She played intramural sports, although not interscholastically - it was a tough time for female athletes, she says. But she is also not bitter.

"You just have to take it as it comes."

Nina and her husband moved to Boise after college. Her daughters learned to swim as a matter of course, and one of their elementary school teachers recommended the Y swim team.

"Susie tended to be a bit chubby and Jean was a hyperkinetic kid, very active and wriggly. So it was good exercise for them, and once you have two on the swim team, well, you might as well have the rest of the children on the swim team."

Thus began Nina's lifetime involvement in Boise YMCA swimming. She helped organize a swim parents group, officiated at meets, served on the board of directors and she was a member of the committee who hired a young swim coach named Jim Everett.

" … The great thing about swimming is you learn to set goals. Once you hit that goal, you get to reset your goal. That's important with studies as well as any physical activity. … To handle success and failure."

With four swimmers in the family - plus Nina herself, who would swim regularly for exercise - that amounted to a lot of swimsuits. Nina tried making them, but that didn't work. So she ordered swimsuits, plus extras for when they'd wear out, and goggles by the dozen.

"Someone called, do you have an extra pair of goggles? Yeah, I'd sell them a pair of goggles. Then it was like, can you get us a swimsuit? We can't find swimsuits in the wintertime.

"I would get discontinued suits so they'd be less expensive. I saw, oh, well, there's a need. So I would get a few suits in every size and have them in the back of my car."

She bought wholesale and started selling at meets - she could watch her girls swim at the same time - until manufacturers insisted she have her own store. She knew little about running a business.

"My friend … helped me that first year. … She said, oh, you need to open a store and I'll help you. … "

So 30 years ago, in 1983, Nina opened the Swim and Run Shop on 16th Street with $4,000 she had saved. She started out renting the lower level, quickly saw the need to expand and within three years had bought the entire building.

"I never envisioned as a teenager owning my own business. But I enjoy people, and I worked in my father's store. He had a shoe store, so sales was part of me. …

"And I believed in myself. I guess that's part of it."

Her father taught her that, and she passed on that attitude to her daughters.

"(He) would say if you want to do it, you can do it. … If you want it bad enough, you can do it."

That doesn't ever mean it's easy.

"(My husband) was very much against (my opening the shop). A woman belonged in the home and not out in her own business. … I was a strong female, a strong woman, and I think that was very hard for him to take."

More challenges came when Nina's youngest daughter, Becky (who now manages the Swim and Run Shop on Fairview), was in high school. They moved to San Diego so Becky could train for the Olympic trials in swimming - one of the things that Becky wanted very much. But shortly after the move, Nina's eldest daughter Susie was killed in a car accident in Washington.

"I had just gone through a divorce before we moved down there. It was a very hard year."

Nina isn't one to dwell on hardship; the way she tells the story reveals very much how she deals with adversity - and where she finds her sustenance.

"I just decided I'd make the best of it.

" … It was a difficult time, but we made it. And I was quite relieved when, after the Olympic trials, (Becky) wanted to come back to Boise. Come back to my friends, to be grounded, to be comfortable."

In 2011, Nina's determination was put to the test again. Family and friends - and swimming - continue to figure prominently when she went to the doctor for what was diagnosed as a urinary tract infection. She was unconvinced and eventually insisted they test her for pancreatic cancer.

"I knew something was wrong."

Her hunch was right: third to fourth stage. That was when the doctor told her to find a hospice.

" … I knew where the pancreas was, but that's about it. (As for knowing the prognosis), it's a good thing I didn't, because I might have gone and gotten a hospice."

The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is not good: Only about 5 percent live beyond two years. Her doctor offered her three to five months.

"(Another doctor) that saw me said you're too active and too healthy just to give up and go into hospice."

Nina decided to begin experimental treatments in Seattle. That began to shrink her tumor; Debbie, one of her daughters, learned about a specialist at Virginia Mason Hospital who offered more treatment options - and the first optimism that Nina had heard.

But the treatments were devastatingly hard.

"I have a dear friend who is an 11-year survivor of brain cancer. She went with me, and every time I got discouraged, she'd flip me around. 'Nope, you're not going to think that way. We're going to be positive.' That is so important."

The worst was yet to come. Nina got pneumonia and became too weak to complete her eight-week treatment.

"The last week, (the doctor) said, no, you can't do it anymore. Your body can't take more chemo, but finish out the radiation and go home.

"I wasn't too sure if I was going home to die or what."

Nina is generally matter-of-fact as she talks about her life, but memories of this time are still emotional. Her daughter, Debbie, took a leave from her teaching job and moved in for three months to help with cooking and daily trips to cancer care and, later, to keep her mother active.

"Not everybody is that lucky."

She takes a deep breath and then she looks up.

"But I made it. … You don't know if they got the cells and they're just there, or if they'll start to grow again. That's the unknown. So you just live each day. …

"There are days when I go, oh, I really don't want to go swim. Or I really don't want to go work out. But then I say - oh, yes I do. Yep. And I go."

Before Nina was diagnosed, she regularly swam 50 laps.

"Which was probably part of the reason for my survival of the first part because I was so active before I had the chemo. …

"(My advice:) Get the best medical help. Be as active as possible. Eat as healthy as possible. And take control - no 'oh, poor me.'"

Nina has worked her way back to 30 laps - slow laps, but that doesn't matter. And she savors time with family and friends.

"Becky lives four doors down, I've got two grandkids. I've got three (more grandchildren) in San Diego. I have a grandson who just graduated from high school. I want to see them grow. That's what keeps you going. … "

So nearly every day, Nina swims or works out with the Livestrong Program at the Y. She's a mentor for people who have cancer, and she and her best friend regularly help out at the store.

"My granddaughter, Kate, she's 7, said, 'You're living just fine.' She was really disturbed when I was first diagnosed (with cancer).

"I said yes. I'm living each and every day. And each one is a blessing."

© 2013 Idaho Statesman

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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