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English Channel Swimmer Birmelin Returns to Orchard Lake Middle School

The West Bloomfield teacher and Farmington Hills resident said she intends to use her successful swim as a learning tool for the rest of her career.

Since completing her lifelong dream of  last month, teacher Jenny Birmelin has rededicated herself to inspiring her students at  in West Bloomfield, where she has taught mathematics since 2003.

As the Farmington resident instructed a sixth-grade class on the second day of school Thursday, Birmelin saw a group of children who were trying to get acclimated to new surroundings. Addressing the students by the names of their former elementary school—“Monica, a Gator”—Birmelin worked to make the students feel comfortable by bringing back what was already familiar to them.

It’s an idea from which she benefited during her 28.04-mile swim Aug. 20, as she was accompanied by companion swimmers Noah Birmelin (her husband) and Karen Rosinski, as well as aunt Lynn Frikker and friend Cheryl Machovec Dehn. Now her classroom is filled with mementos from her unforgettable trip, including posters promoting the 2012 London Olympics and cards of congratulations from Superintendent JoAnn Andrees, among others.

'Pick a goal and don’t stop'

“I’m trying to get across to them to always be in pursuit of something. Pick a goal and don’t stop. Don’t let other people get in your way. The biggest thing with this age group is to surround themselves with people who are going to help them get there,” Birmelin said.

Birmelin’s assignment on the first day of class Wednesday went deep. In addition to asking students to write a short introduction of themselves, their likes and dislikes, she also asked the students to choose a goal to pursue this school year. As she read through the list, ranging from learning to open a locker (from a sixth-grader) to getting a grade point average higher than a 3.6 (from a seventh-grader), Birmelin explained why she specifically asked students not to explain their lifelong dreams on the index card provided.

“I hate to ask every student to get all A’s, because for some of them, a B or a C is a highlight. I just want to see them want to improve their knowledge base in math. To improve problem-solving skills and thinking skills and just generally not giving up on a problem is something they can carry over to high school and for the rest of their lives,” Birmelin said.

For some students who may not even reach the B or C range, Birmelin said she will recall a thought she had while swimming in the frigid seawater on that sunny day.

“I have a jacket that was embroidered with my slogan, ‘Detroit to Dover: 2011 English Channel Swim,’ and I just kept thinking, if I don’t make it, I can never wear that jacket again,” Birmelin said. “I kept thinking, is it going to be worse to finish, to deal with the pain in my shoulders and the cold, or have to sit through that boat ride having disappointed myself and my crew?

“So I thought, I’ve got to keep swimming. And I’ll say that to some students: What’s worse, having to put forth the effort or repeat the class?"

Teacher/swimmer returns to 'normal'

Those types of discussions haven’t happened yet in this young school year. The first two days of school have been a success despite larger class sizes, she said, due to the bright and nice student body. Birmelin is looking forward to the rest of the school year, and on a personal note, a return to normalcy after a grueling training schedule encompassing portions of previous school years building up to her historic swim (she was the first Michigan woman to complete the challenge). 

“I used to train right before and after school—around 3 o’ clock (in the afternoon) I’d be jumping right in the pool. Now I have nothing to do except get a haircut at 5:30,” she joked.

Kidding aside, Birmelin stays close to swimming by volunteering as a coach at Schoolcraft College in Livonia and with FAST: Ford Athletic Swim & Triathlon Club and giving private lessons. The graduate of the Michigan State University School of Journalism also is working on a book about her swim while uploading “thousands” of photos and updating her blog at JennyBirmelin.com.

Birmelin hopes to attend a Nov. 5 certificate presentation in Dover at Dover Town Hall. For information on how you can help her get back to England to receive her award, visit JennyBirmelin.com.

Scott Campbell September 09, 2011 at 08:39 PM
There's no doubt Jenny will be an inspiration to her students and hopefully others. Forget star athletes -- our kids need more role models like this. Thanks for bringing this nice follow-up to the Channel swim story, Tim. It's great that Patch can make us aware of things like this.

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