2020 Swim Across America Highlights: Douglas Whitlock Bicycles from Chicago to St. Louis

This year, when Swim Across America pivoted from open water swims to virtual challenges, people have been finding all kinds of fun and creative ways to support Swim Across America and cancer research in their community. We’re highlighting some of the best ‘Making Waves to Fight Cancer’ stories with Swim Across America in 2020!

Douglas Whitlock, Swim Across America – St. Louis participant and partner at Sandberg Phoenix, one of SAA-St. Louis’s official sponsors, took his SAA -Coast to Coast Challenge to whole new level by bicycling from Grant Park in Chicago all the way to The Gateway Arch in St. Louis – a bike ride that is over 300 miles! Not only did he complete the journey, he and his team raised over $13,000 for groundbreaking cancer research and clinical trials at Siteman Cancer Center along the way! Congratulations to Doug for finishing such a challenging journey and for inspiring us all.

Dynamic Father-Daughter Duo Swims Lake Tahoe for Cancer Research

This year, when Swim Across America pivoted from open water swims to virtual challenges, people have been finding all kinds of fun and creative ways to support Swim Across America and cancer research in their community. We’re highlighting some of the best ‘Making Waves to Fight Cancer’ stories with Swim Across America in 2020!

13-year old Swim Across America – San Francisco Junior Advisory Board member and Team Susan Survives participant Maya Merhige and her father, Chris Merhige set their sights on a big goal for their participation in the San Francisco #SAACoasttoCoast Challenge in order to raise funds for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals! For their personal challenge this year, the dynamic father-daughter duo committed to swimming the true width of Lake Tahoe. For those of you that don’t know – that’s a 12-MILE swim!

True Width of Lake Tahoe 12-Mile Swim

The pair has raised over $5,700 to support cancer research and clinical trials at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals Oakland and San Francisco! We got the chance to catch up with them afterwards and ask them all about their Lake Tahoe swim experience – you can read about it and see some photos below!

What brought you to get involved with Swim Across America? (Maya) I have been swimming with one of the director’s of SAA-SF, Susan Helmrich, for about 6 years, and she introduced me to Swim Across America. Swim Across America is actually what led me to start open-water swimming in the San Francisco Bay. In 2017 and 2018, I did the short course swim with my mom and dad, and then in 2019 we all did the long course swim without wetsuits. Over these past three years, I have reached Wavemaker status, having raised over $10K in total.  Last year, I became part of the SAA-SF Junior Advisory Board. I know a lot of people that have been affected by cancer, and I have always been interested in both swimming and medicine so I was super interested in Swim Across America from the start. 

(Chris) I met Susan Helmrich in 2014 and first did SAA in 2016.  From the first day I swam with Susan she kicked my butt in the pool.  I learned about her experience with cancer and involvement with SAA a few months after meeting her and I was blown away.  Like almost everyone, I have known people who have been affected by cancer and I was amazed by Susan’s amazing spirit and resilience, even after beating cancer three times.  She invited me to join Team Susan Survives and since then the San Francisco Bay SAA has been a highlight every year.  While the swim itself is great, I find it so powerful to hear all the incredible stories from cancer survivors and folks affected by cancer in some form.  I am glad I can do something personally to contribute to the fight against cancer.

Why did you choose the Lake Tahoe swim as your personal challenge?
(Maya) My Dad and I had been talking about us both attempting a Tahoe True Width since last year.  We have spent a lot of time in Tahoe in the winters and summers, and it holds a special place in my heart.  It has always been this magical place for me.  We began training in the San Francisco Bay in March in preparation for our August swim.  When Covid hit and the Swim Across America challenge became virtual, we knew we needed to make our Tahoe swim the SAA challenge.  

What was your experience like participating in and completing that swim? (Maya) It was really amazing!  It was the most beautiful swim, starting with a 4am start with a full moon and beautiful stars above me.  Sunrise was glorious – and swimming in the clear water under the beautiful blue sky and bold clouds was incredible.  The best part was that I was expecting it to take me over 8 hours to complete the course, but I did it in 6 hours and 21 minutes!  There were hard moments where I felt I had to dig deep, but I just kept telling myself that they were nothing compared to the struggle cancer patients face.  I love the lake so much that I was back swimming and paddle boarding in it that afternoon.  

(Chris) I went two days after Maya.  At first I thought it would advantage me to go a couple days later, and in some ways it did.  I benefited by getting a feel for the feedings, the conditions, etc.  I also got to see how supported Maya was by her online swim family during the swim and how excited she was when she completed the swim.   It didn’t advantage me so much because with the swim now behind Maya, I had two extra days to have the jitters! Watching Maya swim for that long made me wonder what I had gotten myself into!   Could I complete this thing? So, when I was toes in at 4am, I was nervous but also excited.  It was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.  The first thing I said when I got back to the boat to Maya was, “How did you make it look so easy?”  She crushed my time, but I was still happy.  I’m really grateful for having had the opportunity to do this with Maya.

If you feel inspired to donate to Maya or Chris, you may do so through their personal pages: Maya Merhige & Chris Merhige.

Maya and Chris want to thank Maya’s little sister, Lucy for her support during their training and the swims.  “She got dragged to many many training swims and had to listen to our swim talk for six months straight.

Photos from the Lake Tahoe Swim

2020 Swim Across America Highlights: Tyler Roethke and Grant Wentworth Swim the Vineyard Sound and Raise over $100,000

In 2020, Swim Across America transitioned from open water swims to fun and exciting virtual challenges in each city. We’re highlighting some of the best ‘Making Waves to Fight Cancer’ stories with Swim Across America this year!

On August 8th, 2020, Swim Across America Nantucket participants Tyler Roethke and Grant Wentworth took their personal challenge to a whole new level by swimming a 10K crossing of the Vineyard Sound! These two accomplished this challenging swim in just under 2 hours and together have raised over $100,000 to support Nantucket Cottage Hospital and Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket – simply AMAZING! Way to go Grant and Tyler! Check out these awesome shots captured by photographer Tom Olcott! If you’d like to support these two outstanding SAA swimmers you can do so by going to swimacrossamerica.org/goto/GrantWentworth & swimacrossamerica.org/goto/TylerRoethke.

Board Member Jack Salerno’s Personal Challenge: 21 Triathlons To Celebrate 21 SAA Events

Swim Across America’s commitment this year is to continue providing hope to the individuals and families affected by cancer through support, inspiration, and leadership. If you are inspired by these personal challenge stories, please register or donate at swimacrossamerica.org.

Swim Across America Board Member Jack Salerno created a personal challenge to celebrate each of the 21 Swim Across America cities. Jack has been involved with Swim Across America since the inaugural Run Across America in 1984 and a board member for nearly 20 years.

Jack will be completing 21 triathlons to celebrate each of our postponed 2020 SAA open water events this year.  His goal is to raise $21K ($1K for each).  You can support Jack at his personal fundraising page.

PHOTOS OF JACK’S 21 TRIATHLONS (check back for updates)

A Story of Purpose, Grit, and Humanity

I have a story. It’s a story of purpose, grit, and humanity. It’s the kind of story that becomes a movie.

In 1984, a team of childhood friends lead by cancer survivor Jeff Keith ran across the United States. The run took nine months. The team faced challenge after challenge. It tested their human spirit. Incredibly (in a time of no internet or e-mail) they raised $1M for cancer research.

Matt Vossler was part of the run. In 1987, Matt was inspired to do more for the cancer community. So he created a charity swim across Long Island Sound. The beginning of a movement was born. A movement that would pioneer new and lifesaving options for cancer patients. Swim Across America’s movement has grown to charity swims in more than 20 communities. But Swim Across America’s ability to make an impact for cancer research and support programs is because of your generosity.

Donations from you have directly lead to breakthroughs to fighting cancer. Cancer is now being treated with immunotherapy, personalized medicine and gene therapy. Treatments that we’ve been funding with your donations. Treatments in 1987 that weren’t available. Doctors are now telling families, “there is hope.” And you are part of the story.

Your donations have given families the most precious gift. The gift of time. The gift of more time to celebrate birthdays, to attend weddings, and pass on family values.

Any other year, we’d be planning to see you at a charity swim. Circumstances required we come up with a new program for 2020. We hope you will join our Swim Across America Challenge. Publish your SAA Challenge on social and tag @SAASwim. We’re watching with anticipation and want to share your story.

We hope you will invite others to participate. Anyone can do any activity for their Swim Across America Challenge. See our communities and join the one that best fits your interest.

Our Swim Across America founders believe humanity shines when we help others. And helping others is what you do by supporting Swim Across America.

We humbly say thank you.

Rob Butcher
Swim Across America | CEO

Swim Across America Awards $120,000 in Cancer Grants

Swim Across America has partnered with the American Society of Clinical Oncology and American Association for Cancer Research to award two $60,000 grants to young investigators that represent the next generation of cancer oncologists. ASCO and AACR are the two leading professional organizations that serve the oncology community.

Dr. Chemtai Mungo

Dr. Chemtai Mungo of UC San Francisco is the recipient of the Conquer Cancer-Swim Across America Young Investigator Award. Dr. Mungo has received a $60,000 grant that will allow her to provide cervical cancer prevention among HIV-positive women. Dr. Mungo describes her personal story, growing up in rural Kenya, as one of inequality that has been a challenge and an inspiration.

Dr. Manisha Jalan

Dr. Manisha Jalan of Memorial Sloan Kettering is the recipient of the AACR-Swim Across America Cancer Research Fellowship. Dr. Jalan has received a $60,000 grant to develop a high throughput assay to test if DNA breaks can be repaired using alternative template other than DNA, to ensure genome stability. Genome instability, especially in breast and ovarian cancer, has long been considered the primary driver of most cancer types.

Dr. Mungo and Dr. Jalan will be honored October 15th at the Value Based Cancer Summit. The Summit is a think tank of academic, industry and business leaders committed to improving cancer care while improving access for patients. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, past FDA-Commissioner, is the keynote speaker. Swim Across America is the official charity supported by the Association for Value-Based Cancer Care.

Swim Across America Offers Swim Lessons to Cancer Survivors

Olympian Cammile Adams is an ambassador for our Swim Across America–Houston charity swim. She is also a swim school owner operating five SafeSplash and SwimLabs schools in greater Houston.

Cammile Adams & Adam Schoen

With quarantine and social distancing to prevent COVID-19, the opportunity for cancer survivors to swim and support Swim Across America has been greatly reduced. Cancer survivors need to be especially aware of their surroundings so being able to swim, or learn to swim, in a safe and clean environment is necessary.

Swim Across America and Cam have teamed up to offer lessons to cancer survivors in the Houston area. The first survivor to receive a lesson is Adam Schoen. Adam, married to wife Claire and father to son Theo (3-years old) and daughter Halle (2-months old), is a brain cancer survivor. He was treated at MD Anderson, beneficiary for Swim Across America-Houston. Adam shares his story on his personal page.

Cam at the 2019 Swim Across America-Houston

“I love teaching,” said Cam. “This is a wonderful opportunity for me to help Adam and other cancer survivors.”

Making Waves with Hope: “Uncertainty and Adversity” with Craig Beardsley and Rowdy Gaines

Hope Header2Making Waves with Hope is a series of inspiring messages by leaders in the Swim Across America community. Olympians Rowdy Gaines and Craig Beardsley had earned their spots on the 1980 USA Olympic Team when uncertainty struck. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics and in an instant, the dreams of both—and hundreds of others—were washed away. Fast forward three decades to the postponement of the 2020 Olympics. Rowdy and Craig offer their wisdom to dealing with uncertain moments. Rowdy and Craig were guests on “Pitch The Rhino” podcast. Give it a listen here: bit.ly/PTRPodcastCR.

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Craig Beardsley on Recovering From What You Can’t Control:

“One of the things that I learned from what happened in 1980, and this is a life lesson for me, was that I did everything I was supposed to do getting ready for ‘80, and then things changed. And I learned that sometimes you can do everything you’re supposed to do but sometimes things are just out of your control. That happens in life. And when that happens you have to just learn how to recover from that and move forward.”

Rowdy Gaines on Current Athletes Finding Motivation Despite Postponements:  

“The most important thing is our health and wellbeing. So, these decisions that came down were the right decisions, it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s just like in 1980, at the time I felt like, ‘Okay I’m going to support my country’ and it felt like the boycott was the best way to answer the Russians that had invaded Afghanistan, but I didn’t like it. It still was devastating. It still hurt me. And I think that it’s okay to be vulnerable right now. I think it’s okay for these athletes to feel anger, the emotions of going through denial first, and then anger, and then sadness and depression, and then acceptance. And sooner or later you’re going to have that acceptance and be able to move on. And it will make you stronger, it will, I guarantee you at the very best it will make them stronger, because in the end, after acceptance for me, was motivation.”

Craig Beardsley on Being Your Best and Obstacles:

When they announced the boycott, I wasn’t the world record holder at the time, I still had something to prove to myself more than anybody else that I could be the best. So I didn’t allow that to derail me as much as maybe some of the other people. I just felt compelled that I still had to prove something, to everybody and myself that I could be the best, and that I trained for that, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way of being the best at this point.”

Craig Beardsley’s Advice on Training and Focus:

“Something that I learned directly from experience is if you’re training and all you’re doing is training, try to have something else in your life that you can focus on. And not just fun stuff, but something that you actually have to focus on that you can remove yourself from the sport because it will help you and it will give you room to breathe, and you’ll look at the sport with fresh eyes instead of getting burned out by it.”

beardsleyRowdy2

BIOS

Craig Beardsley was heavily favored to win the 200m butterfly as a member of the 1980 Olympic Team, only to be forced from competition when politics intervened, and the US boycotted Moscow’s Summer Games. Between 1980 and 1983, Craig held both the World and the American Records in the 200m butterfly, and he won Gold at the Pan American Games in both 1979 and 1983. A nine-time US National Champion, Craig captured another Gold in the same event at the NCAA Championships while an All-American at the University of Florida. Beardsley is currently the Swim Across America Director of Partnerships. 

“Rowdy” Gaines  held 11 World Records during a four-year span in the 1980s. At the age of 25, Gaines won three Gold Medals in the 1984 Games in L.A., including the 100m free in which he set a new Olympic Record, .45 seconds shy of his own World Record. Rowdy also swam on the Gold-Medal winning 400m free and 400m medley relays, both which set World Records. In 1984, he was named World Swimmer of the Year. During his education at Auburn, Rowdy was a five-time NCAA All-American and honored as the Southeastern Conference Athlete of the Year. In 1996, Gaines became NBC’s Olympic Games Swimming Commentator, filling that role in all Olympics and major competitions since. Gaines has also been an Olympic Ambassador from Swim Across America since our organization’s inaugural swim in 1987.

MAKING WAVES WITH HOPE: HOW MATT VOSSLER INSPIRED A MOVEMENT

Hope Header2

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.

Matt Vossler-Greenwich
Matt at SAA–Fairfield County overseeing safety.

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.

UNSELFISH

1985-Jeff Keith finish in LA
Jeff Keith, Matt Vossler, Hugh Curran running into LA in 1985.

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.

VISION

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.

1987-Swim Across the Sound Logo Design
Matt’s drawing of the 1987 logo.

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.

1987-Swim Across Sound newspaper clipping
The newspaper headline from the first swim across the sound.

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.

VISIONARY

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.

Matt & Craig-1992 Nantucket
Matt and Craig Beardsley at SAA-Boston.

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.

Servant Leader

Matt Vossler-Dr Katz
Matt with Dr. Sam Katz and SAA–Fairfield County event directors Michele Graham and Lorrie Lorenz

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.

Making Waves with Hope: “Stay Tuned…” When Life is Put on Hold” by Vicki Bunke

Hope Header2Making Waves with Hope is a series of inspiring messages by leaders in the Swim Across America community during this uncertain time. Vicki Bunke is an active member in the SAA-Atlanta community and is the mother of ‘Amazing’ Grace Bunke, the top national SAA fundraiser in 2018. Grace sadly passed away in March 2018 from osteosarcoma. You can read more about the Bunke family here.

The ellipsis, a row of 3 dots, stands for an omitted section of text. It can also be used to represent an unfinished thought or simply a pause. I think we can all agree that we are currently living in an ellipsis. An ellipsis of life. The dizzying number of closures, cancellations, postponements, and ordered restrictions on our lives prompted by the COVD-19 pandemic just keeps growing. America, as we know it, is on pause. We are in an ellipsis of life.

Our family recently passed the second anniversary of living on this planet without Grace. As such, I am reminded how familiar we are with the feelings and experiences that are touching our entire globe. The experience of living in an ellipsis – the feeling of not knowing what might come next. The feeling of having one’s life placed on pause or hold because of an unwanted medical diagnosis. The feeling of having to wait.

If you were to take a poll of the least popular things to do, waiting would probably be near the top. It is probably one of the few things that nobody likes but everybody does. Because if you think about it, we are always waiting for something. Sometimes for things that are coming imminently, sometimes for things that are a little way off, and sometimes we wait for things which we have no idea if they will ever come or happen.

This pandemic reminds me that the real problem isn’t in the waiting – it’s what can happen while we wait. Over the past handful of years, I have learned that there are two ways out of a stressful situation that we have no control over or a circumstance in which we are forced to wait for our lives to get back to normal. We can accept what is happening and choose a peaceful state of mind or we can choose to fight against it, be miserable, and struggle against the universe.

Guess where I learned that? I learned it from my daughter Grace when she was just 11-years-old. Several nights before the surgery in which her left leg would be amputated due to her disease, I was helping her pack for her hospital stay. Grace saw me grab her Chaco sandals and place them in her bag. I instinctively packed both.

And then Grace said, “Mom, you only need to pack one of those. I won’t need the left sandal in the hospital.”

“Oops, you’re right Grace. Sorry about that.” I replied.

“No problem, mom. I just need to wait on my prosthetic leg to be built before I can wear both sandals again.”Grace answered with a smile.

Grace Leg

That type of acceptance is the key to helping you move forward even while your life seems to be on hold. That type of acceptance is the solution to coping with an ellipsis of life. Believe me, I get it. I know that it is difficult to practice acceptance when you deeply wish things are not the way they are. But I remain committed even today to follow Grace’s lead.

Although it is difficult to know that an idea that was truly inspired – the idea of The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020 – is on hold or what I have been calling ‘Stay tuned…’ status, I know without a doubt that it will all work out.

I also know that each year almost 10 million people across the world die from cancer, of which 80,000 are children. Telecommuting, distance learning, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing might place a pause or hold on the spread of COVID-19, it does not do a single thing to stop the fact that adults and children will continue to hear these 3 words even in the middle of this pandemic: You have cancer…

Please stay healthy, stay tuned, and stay hopeful. There is always hope. Hope has no finish line.