LOVE STORY: Couple muscles on under diagnosis, still ready to get on the water and catch fish

Couple muscles on under diagnosis, still ready to get on the water and catch fish

LINDA STAGER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Mary and Curt Sweely do not let his diagnosis of Becker muscular dystrophy hold him back. The Lawrenceville couple love to hit the water in their bass boat and troll for keepers in contests and just for fun.

With a twinkle in his eye, he gives her a grin. She knows he has a certain charm. It’s been that way since they met 42 years ago. And she adores him … so much so that she makes sure they get to do what they both love: Catch fish.

This is a fishing tale — and a love story.

Curt Sweely is 63 years old. He lives with Becker muscular dystrophy, also known as BMD. Most patients die in their early 50s.

But Curt defies those statistics because that’s all they are. Statistics. He is bigger than life. His positive attitude lights up his world.

Curt and his wife Mary love to fish. They are the “Lady Bass Angler” and “Mr. Bass Master.” And today there is a bass fishing tournament.

The day starts in the wee hours as Mary readies herself, the equipment, and then Curt. She helps him slide into his motorized wheelchair and out into the night they roll. Curt positions his chair onto the specially designed lift at their custom-built Chevy Silverado pickup and, at the push of a button, the chair and he rise into the passenger side of the truck.

“Let’s go catch some fish,” Curt says.

Curt has never let his diagnosis slow him down. Curt’s parents knew their son had muscular dystrophy, but, in those days, little was known about the disease. It didn’t matter. They set out to give Curt everything he needed. He was able to hunt, fish, ride bikes and do most things boys do.

Curt and Mary married when she was 19 and he was 22. The next year, Curt was officially diagnosed with BMD, a specific mutation of the flawed gene that causes muscular dystrophy.

The disease is hereditary and debilitating. Curt can no longer walk and has lost some of the use of his hands. He also has had many BMD-related medical setbacks over the years, including an enlarged heart and irregular heartbeat, glaucoma, a broken ankle, a compression fracture of the spine, a fractured pelvis and a fractured hip. That may sound like a lot of problems, but none have stopped him yet.

After he broke his ankle, he hunted with crutches. When he broke his hip before church on a Sunday, he was out of the hospital and back at church the following Sunday.

And Mary always has been determined to help him keep up. After every setback, she would set out to find what solutions were available — and in some cases when solutions weren’t obvious, she created them.

Mary is philosophical: “Everyone has issues they deal with. We still feel we are no different than anyone else.

We just may have a better attitude.”

From the beginning, Curt and his dad were close. It was natural that they and some fishing buddies would start a local fishing club.

Curt was one of the founding members of the Tioga County Bass Anglers’ Club, 36 years ago. His dad was his fishing partner back then and they were formidable fishermen. Curt has a roomful of trophies from all over the Eastern Seaboard for his many years of wily fishing.

After Curt’s dad, Leigh Sweely, died, Mary knew she couldn’t let Curt’s fishing experiences become only a memory. She set out to become his new fishing partner.

They say “necessity is the mother ofinvention” and Mary carefully plans out each of the steps it takes to get Curt into and out of the fishing boat. And, she makes it happen.

Mary readies the platforms and ramp that Curt will use to get himself into the boat. It’s a two-person job. Once up the ramp, Curt raises his wheelchair seat, up and up until he is level with the boat on the trailer. Mary waits in the boat and she helps him get situated. A little tug here, a little pull there until Curt is seated at the wheel of the boat.

She returns the wheelchair and equipment to the truck and then ably drives Curt and the boat to the boat launch. She steadily backs the truck to the water. He deftly starts the boat and slips it off the trailer into the silent lake. Mary parks the truck and briskly walks down the dock and with a quick hop settles into the passenger side of the boat. Once her lifejacket is secured, they are ready to go. The boat drifts into position for the start of the tournament.

The horn blows and as the tournament starts, all the competitors head out to each team’s favorite fishing spot. Once there, it’s time for Curt to transfer to the bow of the boat. Transfer boards aren’t long enough to cover the distance Curt needs to move in the boat, but that’s OK; Mary made custom boards.

She handles his transfer and then she lifts him onto his modified seat. And finally, once he is in place, she uses a scissor jack to raise his seat to normal fishing height.

Of course, contraptions like that aren’t just sitting on a shelf ready to buy. Mary and some friends invented it.

She cinches down a specially-made seatbelt so that he can’t fall out of the boat when it rocks from the waves. And then they settle in.

On this day, a storm blows in and they tuck their bass boat under a nearby bridge to wait out the rain. Fishermen know that when a front comes in, the fishing isn’t necessarily good. So there are few hopes now for a good catch. Still, that’s not what this day is really about. It’s about being together, doing something they both love.

It doesn’t take long before the sun is out again and the day is bright. Mary gets her camera out and takes photos. Curt excitedly points out a large black bear swimming along the shore near them. Mary snaps some more photos. And time passes.

During the years that they have been members of the local club, Curt has missed only a handful of tournaments due to medical reasons. He has won numerous awards and participated in hundreds of tournaments — 374 to be exact.

Mary keeps the statistics for the club these days and Curt keeps records for all of the fish ever caught by club members, from the beginning.

The local club is active all summer long with fishing tournaments and also sponsors special youth activities, like the annual June tournament on Cowanesque Lake for local youth. And the Sweelys have been promoters of those activities every year.

Today, when the tournament ends, Mary and Curt arrive back at the boat launch as the other boats start coming in too. It’s a reverse of the morning routine, and soon Curt is in his wheelchair and telling stories with the rest of the bass anglers. Mary retrieves the day’s catch from the live-well and gets the fish weighed. Today, it’s a small catch but it is fish, and they are all Curt’s.

Does Mary care? Probably. She competes against Curt and the other anglers at each tournament. But there are more important things to think about.

Mary says the companionship and camaraderie are special with this bass fishing club: part of what keeps them coming back to each tournament. But she also knows that their fishing days are numbered.

Solutions are always being formulated in her mind, and Curt keeps on smiling. He knows just what a jewel he has for a wife. And he astutely says nothing about catching more fish today.

It’s not about the fish anyway, is it?

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Mary says. That’s been their motto from the beginning of their relationship, and it will continue to be so.

Folks say any day on the water is a good day. To the Sweelys, any day together is a good day.

Curt is realistic. “Someday, I’ll be too weak to fish, but the great memories will go on forever,” he muses.

Then he gives Mary that grin and, with a twinkle in his eye, says, “SHE’s the best catch I ever made.”