The race was a disaster, the aftermath even worse. "The Nile has a current down the middle," says Cindy. "So you go down the course in about 10 minutes. Then you cut toward one shore and return along it, because you can't fight the current in the middle. So you're swimming in water that's not even knee-deep and where all the sewage and guck is."
Of the 21 swimmers who started the race, eight finished. For placing fourth, Nicholas won $272. For being so foolish as to swim at all, she got schistosomiasis, a tropical disease that affects more people around the world than cancer and high blood pressure put together.
"Travel books say 'Don't wade in the water,' " says Nicholas. "I didn't wade. I really lingered."
Nicholas now knows a great deal about schistosomiasis. It is caused by a parasite that lives in the tissue of certain freshwater snails. In humans the parasite passes through the lungs and lodges primarily in the liver, causing periodic high fevers, diarrhea, fatigue and discomfort in the areas of the liver and the intestines.
"I was so sick," she says. "I had good days and bad days. Days that were bad I could hardly walk, felt really dragged, really sick, really flushed. When I trained in the morning, I was exhausted and would go to bed all day and then get up and train again."
In late July, at the height of her Channel training schedule, Nicholas checked into Toronto's County General Hospital for a week of treatment with the agreement that she be allowed to leave twice a day for her workouts at a nearby pool. "You can't take a week off just before you go to the Channel," she says. "You can't even take two days off."
For Nicholas, the cure, as it turned out, was considerably worse than the disease. Its goal was to kill the parasites before they produced their first batch of eggs, but Niridazole, the drug used to do that, produces, among other unpleasant things, severe headaches, intense nausea and diarrhea.
"There's a whole bunch of side effects, and you get them all," she says. "The first night I was lying there trying to go to sleep, and my heart rate, at rest, was 98. Normally it's 48 to 50." She was offered Tylenol and Valium for curbing the side effects, but with her departure for England only two weeks away she decided not to take them.
One day, during her early evening workout, when Nicholas was pushing a bit, trying to keep pace with a sprinter in the next lane, her chest began to feel tight and she stopped. Then, thinking of the Channel, she pushed on, and the tightness got worse. She stopped again, but the pain continued to increase. Now it was running down her arms. She tried a couple more lengths, then gave up and went into the dressing room where she was unable to raise her arms to open her locker. Thinking she might be having a heart attack but not wanting to make a scene, Nicholas lay down on the gummy locker-room floor and concentrated on breathing. When 15 minutes passed and she still felt as though a house were on her chest, she called for help. "I don't feel so hot," she told Bruce Gibson, a coach who sometimes oversees her workouts.
"She couldn't move or get up," says Gibson. "We knew what was causing it, but all we could do was try to comfort her. Her whole chest cavity hurt terribly and she was crying."