Alessandra Arendt

For Rob Butcher, the world changed in 2008. That’s the year his mother, Maria, passed away from appendix cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

Butcher was a lifelong swimmer who had qualified for the Olympic trials in 2000, but had largely left the swimming world behind to become a marketing heavyweight in the NASCAR world.

Dealing with his mom’s cancer forced Butcher to step away from his life and refocus. “It was brutal, man,” he recalls. “She was diagnosed with cancer in December and by the following Thanksgiving she never came out of the hospital. We had a deeply emotional connection.”

But when his mother passed away at 62, Butcher gained a new connection — with himself and his passion for swimming. “Sometimes when there’s such big moments in life, they become inflection points that shape your values going forward,” he says.

And sometimes the world lends a helping hand. For Butcher, that came in the form of friend Rowdy Gaines, who informed him U.S. Masters Swimming was looking for a new executive director to grow membership and take the group to the next level. Of 85 applicants, the USMS board picked Butcher.

Over the next seven years, they were glad they did. Butcher grew membership from about 40,000 to about 70,000, and annual revenue from $1 million to $4 million. In addition, he spearheaded an innovative new adult learn-to-swim instructors program.

During all this time, Butcher never forgot his mom. And in 2015, he joined the board of Swim Across America, a nonprofit organization that provides vital seed funding to world-renowned hospitals investigating and conducting new clinical trials that lead to treatments and cures for cancer.

Just one year later, SAA asked Butcher to become its executive director. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect, fitting tribute to his mother. SAA benefits have generated more than $65 million in cancer research and clinical trial grants for top cancer treatment centers. With the support of more than 100 Olympians, it hosts swims in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Tampa.

But how does all this benefit the aquatics industry? In a word, Butcher says, access. Through SAA, aquatics facilities have access to Olympians who normally receive $10,000 to $20,000 in appearance fees — all without dealing with agents or management firms, and at no cost to facilities themselves for an event.

“We’re more than a swim, we’re a cause,” Butcher says. And when it comes to attracting those hard-to-reach millennials, there’s nothing like an SAA event, he adds.

“You want to bring in millennials, you do a benefit swim,” he says. “That way it’s much more than just visiting my pool. It’s doing something good for mankind because so many people have been affected by cancer.”