Colorado Community Makes Waves to Benefit Children’s Hospital Colorado

Picture a sunny and warm mid-August morning in Colorado. Retired Olympians such as Missy Franklin and George DiCarlo are smiling with water enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. They enter the water of Chatfield Reservoir in Littleton to “Make Waves to Fight Cancer” with the Swim Across America-Denver charity swim. There’s a sense of community as supporters and family cheer for them. Not because they’ll be racing for first place, rather because they’re all there to raise money that will provide grants for pediatric cancer at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Created in 2018, Swim Across America-Denver has granted $545,917 to research projects at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Colorado. Uniquely, all the proceeds from Swim Across America-Denver stay in our community to fund research projects at Children’s Colorado where philanthropic grants from Swim Across America are necessary to make progress in giving hope to kids and their families who are fighting cancer. Here are the projects that are being funded by SAA:

  • The acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) research project, led by Drs. Amanda Winters, Taizo Nakano, and Craig Forester, aimed at bringing new therapies into phase II of clinical trials for pediatric MDS and AML to better define how to diagnose, classify and treat MDS patients.
  • The tumor research project, led by Dr. Adam Green, which will characterize the immune response to new brain tumors to better establish which types are amenable to cancer immunotherapy and provide a new prognostic marker for these diseases.
  • The sepsis biomarker project, led by Dr. Leonora Slatnick, will lead to novel ways of diagnosing and managing infectious complications in immunosuppressed patients.
  • The CAR-T Cell project, led by Dr. Lindsey Murphy and collaborating with Dr. Winters and members of the BMT-Cellular Therapeutics team, aims to use novel laboratory methods for detecting CAR-T cells in patients receiving those therapies to better understand how patients respond to these therapies and improve cure rates.

“With [Swim Across America grants] we’re building the largest national database on pediatric myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) to collect data on all of the past and future children with this life-threatening disorder. SAA’s contribution will help encourage research collaboration at over 50 children’s hospitals to enter data that will help develop a national standards-of-practice to treat pediatric MDS,” said Taizo Nakano, MD.

Grants from SAA will also be used to fund site initiation of a nationwide clinical trial for pediatric MDS at Children’s Colorado and will also be critical for Dr. Forester and Dr. Winters as they investigate the biological activity of the drug combination being tested.

“This will allow us to understand why the drugs work for pediatric MDS and perhaps enable us to predict at diagnosis which children with MDS are more or less likely to benefit from these drugs,” said Amanda Winters, MD.

“We welcome and invite our Colorado community to join us,” said Nicole Vanderpoel and Jessica Vitcenda, community leaders for SAA—Denver. “You can swim, volunteer or do a virtual activity with all the proceeds staying in Denver to benefit Children’s Colorado.”

Learn more about SAA-Denver and how you can get involved by visiting Swim Across America – Denver.  

Swim Across America Debuts Team Captain Package with SAA Hat

Swim Across America is excited to celebrate our team captains this year by introducing a team captain package! Once you register your team, you’ll receive the package in the mail that includes a new SAA baseball cap (pictured) and resources to be successful.

We hope you’ll be signing up to lead a team again this year and receiving one soon! There is also a new Team Captain Corner page on the website, where you can find everything from email templates to use with your teammates and donors, to online tools and social media resources. You can check out the page at www.swimacrossamerica.org/captains.

Register your team today and start recruiting!

 

35 Stories of Impact: Eric Vitcenda of SAA-Denver

Eric Vitcenda
Swim Across America – Denver

4 years with Swim Across America
Age 58; Raised over $14,000 across all events

“I have committed myself to helping others accomplish their goals, and help raise awareness and money for cancer research, specifically for Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.”

Eric Vitcenda was introduced to Swim Across America in 2017 while competing at Ironman Maryland when he asked about another triathlete’s SAA t-shirt. Soon after, his wife and SAA-Denver Co-event director, Jessica’s swim pod initiated efforts to bring SAA to the Denver area. With his swimming and volunteer experience, he knew he could do something to help and make a difference.  

Eric was “voluntold” he would handle the “SAA World”; little did he know what that would mean, or what it would eventually lead to.  From initial coordination of receiving, storing, and transporting the SAA site equipment to camping overnight to ensure its security at the event site there is no limit to Eric’s volunteering and support of SAA. “I learned to set—and reset—the event course, blow up the buoys, and ensure the SAA arch was ready to welcome participants and provide a sunrise photo shoot.  I may miss out on the opening ceremonies, but I’m driven to make the event as memorable as possible with the goal of increasing future participation and donations.  And the people I meet each year and the friends I have made as a result are my reward.”

Eric has since moved on to be a leader in his Denver community when it comes to spreading the mission of SAA and wanting to make a difference in cancer research. From coordinating pool swims, rallying his company to get involved, donating platelets to cancer patients and teaching one of SAA-Denver’s patient ambassadors, Markus to swim – a week prior to last year’s event. “We told Markus that a half-mile was quite an accomplishment for a non-swimmer, and his exhausted smile when he came out of the water was the best reward for all my efforts throughout the year to support and promote SAA. I have used that day since to motivate me to work hard and find unique ways to make sure people across Colorado and the country know about SAA and what has been accomplished over the past 35 years” says Eric.

While Eric has been fortunate enough to have a healthy and active life, he has been inspired by those around him going through their own battle with cancer to make a difference in their honor. His aunt is a breast cancer survivor and in 2018 he lost a dear friend and coworker to cancer. He later found out that the coworker’s daughter had received treatment at Children’s Hospital Colorado, the beneficiary of SAA-Denver fundraising and awareness efforts. This led Eric to become the captain of Team WorldPay Colorado, in their honor. “I have committed myself to helping others accomplish their goals, and help raise awareness and money for cancer research, specifically for Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.”

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Olympian Roots of SAA-Atlanta

Swim Across America – Atlanta
10 years of Olympian support

10 years ago Olympians helped bring SAA to Atlanta,” says 1980 US Olympic team member Megan Neyer.

In 1988, Olympian Daniel Watters helped start the Swim Across America – Dallas swim. Years later, Daniel asked his friend and former college swimmer Sherri Hart to clone the event in Atlanta. In 2013, Swim Across America-Atlanta was established with the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as the beneficiary. Since its inception, SAA-Atlanta has raised more than $2.6 million to support cancer research.

SAA-Atlanta has had incredible Olympian support since its inception. Olympians include Craig Beardsley, Carlton Bruner, Maritza Correia McClendon, Nei-Kuan Chia, Hali Flickinger, Missy Franklin, Geoff Gaberino, Andrew Gemmell, Doug Gjertsen, Bobby Hackett, McClain Hermes, Katie Hoff, Joe Hudepohl, Janel Jorgensen McArdle, Kristy Kowal, Kara Lynn Joyce, Steve Lundquist, Megan Neyer, Heather Petri, Ramon Valle, Neil Versfeld, Shannon Vreeland, Daniel Watters, Amanda Weir, Ashley Whitney, Peter Wright, Eric Wunderlich and Paige Zemina who have all participated over the years. Each of them having their own story as to why they got involved. Having Olympic swimmers involved in the SAA events provides an exciting experience for participants and inspires others to get involved, support and swim.

Megan Neyer, a diver on the 1980 US Olympic team and 15x national springboard champion, joined the Swim Across America-Atlanta family at its inception in 2013. “10 years ago Olympians helped bring SAA to Atlanta,” said Megan Neyer. Megan, who has spent her life involved with aquatics, has personally seen numerous cancer diagnoses impact those close to her. “I have lost too many family and friends to cancer – both of my parents (my mother died during the inaugural year of the ATL event in 2013), my Aunt, too many friends, and most recently, in 2021, a dear family friend who was only 42.  I have a brother who is a three-time cancer survivor who was also a swimmer in college. I am passionate about Swim Across America’s mission because I want to make sure that children afflicted with cancer have the opportunity to live full lives.” 

1996 Olympian Peter Wright joined Swim Across America-Atlanta in 2014, shortly after his brother-in-law (and good friend) was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Peter’s brother in law was successfully treated and is now leading a healthy life. Peter was extremely grateful for the donations from so many that allowed his brother in law to receive the proper treatment and he began to look for ways to make a bigger difference when he came across SAA.  “Swim Across America was the perfect answer.  After participating for the first time in 2014, I had to continue my involvement.  SAA is filled with some of the best people you will ever meet. I am proud to just be a part of this group.”

Nei-Kuan Chia had originally gone to medical school in Tampa. During orientation, Nei-Kuan was taken on a tour of the Moffitt Cancer Center. There he met a kid, who was being treated for cancer, and his family that shaped his outlook on his career and life. “I had a chance to spend time with them that day and would visit with them each time he was there for treatment. That experience made me want to be a pediatric oncologist.” Although his career took a different turn and he never finished medical school, he has always kept the desire to help in the fight against cancer. “I’ve had family members who have battled cancer and my fiancé’s dad passed away from cancer. When I was asked to participate in Swim Across America, it gave me that chance to fulfill my long desire to help fight the battle against cancer.  Being a father and a swimmer, SAA Atlanta perfectly combines all my passions together in helping to directly support the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta and pediatric cancer research through swimming.”

Geoff Gaberino, a 1984 Olympian,  has been involved with Swim Across America since 1992, when he swam in the SAA-Nantucket event. Geoff’s friend, Craig Beardsley brought him into the fold. Geoff had a love for swimming, his comrades and has also been impacted by cancer. “My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer.  I never knew her.  So I swim and participate in her memory.” That is not the only reason Geoff has spent the last three decades supporting SAA. “The reason that I come back year over year is to spend time with the kids in the hospitals.  They are inspirational.  They have such life and joy, especially given their fight.  Though I might bring a little joy to their day when we visit, they bring me such hope for what is possible through this cause.”

Swim Across America is grateful for the continued support of Olympians and special guests who have donated their time to support the SAA cause. These Olympians have attended our swims and special events helping generate awareness and raising donations for our beneficiaries.

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Team Gans Strong of SAA-Charlotte

Sandra & Allie Gans
Swim Across America – Charlotte

5 years with Swim Across America
Sandra 57; Allie 26; Raised over $11,000 across all events

“We continue to give back to the cancer community in Charlotte, which we know all too well, to give hope to all of the families who unfortunately have to go through the same thing as us. We hope that maybe one day the word cancer will be the past. We hope that hearing the word cancer doesn’t present the immediate feeling of fear. We hope that cancer will no longer be an earth-shattering diagnosis, but something that can be treated and even prevented.”

In 2017, the Gans Family’s world was completely flipped upside down when Jeff Gans was diagnosed with oral cancer. Allie, the youngest of the family, was finishing up her senior year of college and frequenting home to be with her Dad. Jeff went through 9.5 hours of intensive surgery that left him with a trach and unable to speak for days but ultimately removed the cancer from his body. Fast forward a few months, Allie graduated college and was looking to start her career when she got connected to Swim Across America. Needless to say it was a perfect match being able to work for an organization that raises funds to further cancer research. Not to mention, the Charlotte Swim supports Levine Cancer Institute, where Jeff was treated.

Soon after Allie joined the team, her mom Sandra got involved as she wanted a way to give back to the cancer community and help others that were going through the same thing as they had. The two started Team Gans Strong in 2018 and the team has raised over $10,000 to support cancer research in their Charlotte community since. 

In 2021, Sandra and Allie decided to take their involvement deeper and became co-event directors for SAA-Charlotte. The mother-daughter duo led the Charlotte swim in 2021 which raised over $215,000 to fund cancer research and clinical trials.

In October of 2021, just three weeks after the Charlotte swim, Jeff was informed he had a recurrence of oral cancer. He has since undergone another extensive surgery, chemo & immunotherapy, six weeks of radiation and started his long road to recovery. All of that making Swim Across America even more purposeful this year. Team Gans Strong is dedicated to raising funds to further cancer research here in Charlotte and provide hope and inspiration for those in the same boat. 

“We continue to give back to the cancer community in Charlotte, which we know all too well, to give hope to all of the families who unfortunately have to go through the same thing as us. We hope that maybe one day the word cancer will be the past. We hope that hearing the word cancer doesn’t present the immediate feeling of fear. We hope that cancer will no longer be an earth-shattering diagnosis, but something that can be treated and even prevented.”

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Susan Helmrich of SAA-San Francisco

Susan Helmrich
Swim Across America – San Francisco

16 years with Swim Across America
Age 66; Raised over $1 million across all events with Team Susan Survives!

“I continue to volunteer for Swim Across America as captain of Team Susan Survives! because it is my small way of giving something back to the universe because, for whatever reason, I am one of the lucky ones. In my own small way, I hope to inspire, motivate and encourage others to keep trying and to keep going even when it seems hopeless.”

At the age of 21 Susan Helmrich would hear the words” you have cancer” for the first time when she was diagnosed with vaginal cancer. 24 years later, Susan would be told that the cancer was back and had spread to her lungs. 11 years after that diagnosis, Susan had surgery for neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. Three times Susan has faced the horrible words of a cancer diagnosis – and three times she has fought back. This year, she will celebrate 13 years cancer-free as a three-time cancer survivor. 

Susan has been an avid swimmer her whole life but Swim Across America provided a new meaning to her love of swimming. “I swim because I can, and because so many others cannot.  I swim because I am one of the lucky ones who has benefitted from extraordinary research and great medical care, which have saved my life each time I had cancer.  I swim because I am so fortunate to have made it through three different cancers, eight major surgeries and way too many hospitalizations to even count, and I have come out the other side.”

Susan partnered with Anthony Ducomb to become the co-event directors for SAA-San Francisco in 2011. The pair worked tirelessly from 2011 to 2020 as event directors to continue to grow the charity swim and raise awareness for the need for funding cancer research in their community. Thanks to their leadership SAA-San Francisco has donated over $5.5 million to support pediatric cancer research at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals.   

Susan has stayed heavily involved with SAA and is the captain of Team Susan Survives!, a top national fundraising team that has raised more than $1 million to support cancer research in San Francisco. “I continue to volunteer for Swim Across America as captain of Team Susan Survives! because it is my small way of giving something back to the universe because, for whatever reason, I am one of the lucky ones. In my own small way, I hope to inspire, motivate and encourage others to keep trying and to keep going even when it seems hopeless.

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Team Carolyn of SAA-Nassau/Suffolk

Carolyn Jaenisch, Caitlin Chestler, Gregory Chestler & Steve Chestler
Swim Across America – Nassau/Suffolk

1 year with Swim Across America
Steve 65; Raised over $100,000 with Team Carolyn

We are looking forward to joining a community dedicated to fighting cancer, the disease that took Carolyn Jaenisch from us, while simultaneously doing something she loved : swimming.

Carolyn Jaenisch’s diagnosis of Terminal Adenocarcinoma in July 2021 came as a shock to the entire family. She was an avid swimmer who swam with Long Island masters and Excel Swim Club for the past 21 years on Long Island. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and had her first back operation she was told she would be swimming again in 2 months. Carolyn was all about family and swimming.  

So when her family went looking for a charity event, they saw the SAA-Sound to Cove swim at Pryibil Beach on July 31, 2022, and got in touch with Swim Across America CEO Rob Butcher and local event chair Kevin Shine to learn more and make a plan to participate. Carolyn was so excited to get involved with Swim Across America.

Carolyn sadly passed away in November of 2021, just 4 months after her diagnosis, and before she could witness her family swimming in her honor. Carolyn’s passing left behind her husband, Steven Chestler, 24-year old son Gregory and 19-year old daughter Caitlin; and they are the founders of Team Carolyn for Swim Across America.

This July will be Team Carolyn’s first year participating in a Swim Across America event. “We are looking forward to joining a community dedicated to fighting cancer, the disease that took Carolyn Jaenisch from us, while simultaneously doing something she loved : swimming” says Steve Chestler.  Steve, Caitlin, Gregory and other members of Team Carolyn have rallied together to raise an amazing $100,000 (and counting) to support cancer research and clinical trials. 

“We know she would be honored that she has been supported and loved so much.”

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Daniel Watters, Jeanne Cunningham & Andrea Dickson of SAA-Dallas

Daniel Watters, Jeanne Cunningham & Andrea Dickson
Swim Across America – Dallas

11 years with Swim Across America

With the help of then SAA President Janel Jorgensen (a teammate of Andrea and Daniel on the 1988 Olympic Team), SAA – Dallas would establish funding for Phase 1 clinical research at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.

Swim Across America – Dallas held its inaugural event on Lake Ray Hubbard in the Spring of 2011, directed by University of Texas Swimming teammates Jeanne (Doolan) Cunningham, Andrea (Hayes) Dickson and Daniel Watters.  Each of the event directors have family histories impacted by cancer and wanted to make a difference in the fight.  Following an incredible adventure where swimmers from Texas and SMU teamed together to raise over $75,000 in the San Francisco swim as Team Tejas, they hoped to replicate the efforts in their home city of Dallas. With the help of then SAA President Janel Jorgensen (a teammate of Andrea and Daniel on the 1988 Olympic Team), SAA – Dallas would establish funding for Phase 1 clinical research at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.  $2.8 million dollars raised later and now funding the Swim Across America Innovative Clinical Trials Center at Baylor, the swim is still going strong under new leadership but still with the grateful support of Jeanne, Andrea, and Daniel. 

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: Team Rock On of SAA-Baltimore

Hannah, Emma, Samantha and Trevor Rocks
Swim Across America – Baltimore

6 years with Swim Across America
Sammy 33; Emma 31; Hanna 30; Trevor 28; Raised over $300,000 across all events

“Participating in SAA Baltimore honors our mom’s memory in a very personal way. Every year at the swim, we see the faces of people whose lives our fundraising has helped save, and even though we still wish our mom could be one of those faces, it helps us to cope with her loss to know that our swimming is truly making a difference.”

Team Rock On is a rock star in that they have raised more than half a million dollars for crucial cancer research. Tea Rock On was formed in 2016 as a way for the family to honor the memory of Cristy Rock, who sadly passed away in May of 2016 after a two year battle with colorectal cancer. Cristy’s children, Sammy, Emma, Hanna and Trevor, found participating in Swim Across America – Baltimore provided an amazing way to honor their mom, as the beneficiary, Johns Hopkins Hospital, was where Cristy was treated during her cancer battle. “Participating in SAA Baltimore honors our mom’s memory in a very personal way. Every year at the swim, we see the faces of people whose lives our fundraising has helped save, and even though we still wish our mom could be one of those faces, it helps us to cope with her loss to know that our swimming is truly making a difference.”

Now, six years later, Team Rock On continues to swim to honor their mom, their PopPop, who passed away in January after being diagnosed with melanoma in 2020, and many other family members and friends who have been affected by cancer. They have raised an incredible $600,000 for the local beneficiary Johns Hopkins, and they know all too well the importance of the funding and support. “The team at Johns Hopkins helped our mom fight for more time with us and were instrumental in the development of Keytruda, the cancer drug our grandfather received to treat his melanoma. We swim every year to support the work they do every day to help patients and families like ours.”

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.

35 Stories of Impact: John O’Neill of SAA-Rhode Island

John O’Neill
Swim Across America – Rhode Island

12 years with Swim Across America
Age 62; Raised over $250,000 across all events with Providence College Swimming and Diving Team

“Too many family members and friends have been lost to cancer and we wanted to do something that could help.”

John O’Neill is the head coach of the Providence College Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Teams. John is an incredible coach, leader and example and it is seen through his relationship with his athletes whom he has a wonderful relationship with. John has been the support system for two of his athletes who faced cancer battles – Colleen Lowell (‘97) and senior Kara McCurdy. Both tell a similar story of the incredible support from Coach JO.

John joined the Swim Across America community 12 years ago because he wanted to help. “Too many family members and friends have been lost to cancer and we wanted to do something that could help.” He quickly became part of the Swim Across America – Rhode Island leadership, having great involvement with the unique college teams program. Each year Providence College Swimming and Diving teams participate in the charity swim. The Friars have raised over $250,000 over the years to support cancer research at Women and Infants Hospital Rhode Island. He has also connected with many other college team coaches and encouraged their participation. Thanks to John, over 10 college teams participate annually. “Our RI Swim is unique with so many college participants involved.  We hope that once they graduate and relocate, they stay involved with SAA no matter where their future takes them!”

Swim Across America is celebrating 35 years of impact in 2022. SAA has raised $100 million since its inception in 1987 to support cancer research and clinical trials across the U.S. Please contact Jeni Howard at jhoward@jhowardpr.com for media inquiries.