Making Waves with Hope is a series of inspiring messages by leaders in the Swim Across America community during this uncertain time. Matt Vossler is a Founder of Swim Across America as well as a current board member and this is his story.
The secret to non-profits that make an impact is a mission that resonates and volunteers who give their time, talent and resources to the mission. During Volunteer Appreciation Week, it’s gratifying for us to share the story of a volunteer who inspired the Swim Across America movement that has given hope to so many.
Over the past decade, there has been a wave of advancements in cancer detection and cures, such as immunotherapy. These new promises have given hope and the precious gift of time to those battling cancer.
But for the cures to occur, there needs to be funding. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that Matt Vossler’s vision for Swim Across America – to fund cancer research – has directly saved lives.
More than simply saving lives, our world has been made better because of the new treatments to fight cancer. These new treatments aren’t limited by age, gender, ethnicity, geography or even cancer type.
Because of research, children surviving cancer are graduating from school. Because of research, parents surviving cancer are walking their sons and daughters down the aisle. Because of research, grandparents surviving cancer are cherishing more holidays with their families.
Cancer first appeared in Matt’s life when his childhood friend Jeff Keith was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma at 12-years of age. To save Jeff’s life, his leg was amputated. He then underwent 18-months of chemotherapy.
Jeff and Matt finished high school in Connecticut. They both went to Boston College where they were roommates and played college lacrosse. After graduating from BC, Jeff recruited his friends Matt, Hugh Curran, Paul Tortora, Tracy Fitzpatrick and Jeff’s brother David Keith to join him on Jeff Keith’s Run Across America. The friends put their professional lives on hold for a year as they served a greater calling of supporting Jeff’s charity run. The run took 9-months and raised close to $2M for the American Cancer Society. It was documented in this video series.
The charity run completed on February 18, 1985. Jeff stayed in LA to attend graduate school at USC. Matt returned home to Connecticut to work in the family moving business.
Back home, Matt was stirred to do something more. He shared in this NY Times story, “I was thinking of some way to keep the idea alive – something physically challenging to raise money and help people out.” In the 1980s, popularity in triathlons was growing spurred by Julie Moss’s iconic crawl to the finish of the 1982 Hawaii Ironman.
The characteristics of grit and determination it took to complete an Ironman were the same ones Matt thought it would take to complete an open water swim. And so on August 1, 1987, approximately a dozen swimmers and their families boarded two boats at Port Jefferson, NY for what should have been a 17-mile relay swim across Long Island Sound. Why do we use the word “should”? Because one of the boats accidentally sank. The swim finished and the boat is still at the bottom of the sound.
That 1987 charity swim raised around $10,000 which was granted to St. Vincent’s Medical Center to benefit cancer patients. It was a far cry from the nearly $2M that was raised on the charity run.
It would have been reasonable to give up the charity swim idea and go back to charity runs that were less risky and offered more upside. But to Matt, and others at the charity swim, there was a challenge to swimming that had similarities to the challenges cancer patients, and their families, experience.
So undeterred, the friends returned to Port Jefferson in 1988 for the second annual Swim Across the Sound. This time, they had some help from Olympians Craig Beardsley, Rowdy Gaines and Steve Lundquist.
In the 1990s, Matt led the name change from Swim Across the Sound to Swim Across America. The name change was a reflection of the “Making Waves to Fight Cancer” movement that was spreading to new communities with charity swims in Boston, Chicago, New York City and Nantucket.
The name change also signified Swim Across America’s commitment to funding cancer research with an intentional focus on immunotherapy, which in the 90s was considered novel or “quack” medicine.
On March 25, 2011, a revolutionary breakthrough in the way cancer is fought occurred when the FDA approved Ipilimumab (brand name Yervoy), an immunotherapy treatment for patients with melanoma. The Swim Across America Research Lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering was a significant funder of the research and clinical trials that lead to the FDA approval.
On March 25, 2017 another immunotherapy breakthrough occurred when the FDA approved pembrolizumab (brand name KEYTRUDA). The Swim Across America Research Lab at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center was one of the primary grant funders of the research and clinical trials that helped with this FDA approval.
For 2020, Swim Across America is funding $6M to more than 55 cancer research projects at 27 beneficiary hospitals.
Matt Vossler’s vision of charity swims that fund cancer research has become a movement that thousands of volunteers support every year.
Even with these deserved accolades, if you attend the Fairfield County charity swim (20-minutes from where Matt and his wife Pam live), you’ll find Matt leading the water safety team.
At the inaugural Denver charity swim two years ago, Matt was one of the early birds setting up registration and checking in participants and fellow volunteers.
When we host a beneficiary activity, Matt always raises his hand to participate and importantly thank the doctors who he considers to be the heroes in the cancer fight.
Matt is 57-years old. He brings contagious energy to everything he does.
So, this tribute isn’t a retirement. We know that word isn’t in Matt’s vocabulary.
Rather, it’s a heartfelt thank you.
Since 1987, Swim Across America has granted nearly $100 million through 21 annual charity open water swims and over 100 pool swim fundraisers.