In May, it becomes a mob scene on the white sands of Clearwater Beach, Fla., as several hundred swimmers race into the Gulf of Mexico to swim a half-mile or 1 mile. It’s all part of Swim Across America’s effort to raise money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment through swimming-related events. Since the Tampa Bay Open Water Swim, as it’s known, began two years ago, volunteer swimmers have raised more than $250,000 for the local beneficiary, Moffitt Cancer Center.
And that’s just one Swim Across America event.
SAA holds 16 open-water swims and up to 75 pool swims across the nation annually. Open-water events, which occur from May to late September, can take various forms, from the Tampa Bay Open Water event to a swim under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Pool swims occur year ’round, and include efforts such as the Central Bucks Family YMCA’s “Swim for Thrive” event in Doylestown, Pa., or the “ThankSwimming for a Cure” at the New York Sports Club the day after Thanksgiving.
Nonprofit Swim Across America was founded in 1987 by Jeff Keith and Matt Vossler, two lifelong friends. Two years before, they had participated in Run Across America, an eight-month trek from Boston to Los Angeles, raising more than $1 million for cancer research. It was all the more remarkable because Keith is an amputee, having lost his right leg above the knee due to cancer in his childhood.
Nowadays, SAA events draw more than 5,000 participants each year, ranging in age from 4 to 78, and there are all types of swimmers, from recreational to Masters – and even Olympians. Indeed, the president of SAA, Janel Jorgensen McArdle, is a former Olympian who participated in the inaugural Tampa Bay Open Water Swim.
With an estimated 1.66 million new U.S. cancer cases in 2013 alone, according to the American Cancer Society, the need for such efforts is clear.
“What’s special about Swim Across America open water swims is that money raised locally stays local, and supports cancer research, prevention or treatment in the city where the event takes place,” said Blake Chanowski, vice president of operations at Boston-based SAA. “Our swimmers always know the impact that they are making in the fight against cancer. That makes each dollar raised extremely personal to SAA swimmers and to us.
“We have raised $50 million since our inception in 1987,” she added, “and since day 1 of this organization, we have always had a commitment to that business model.”
Those unable to participate in an SAA event still can help by sponsoring a swimmer, or making a donation to the cause. For more information, visit swimacrossamerica.org.