Swim Across America: The Superbowl of Swims Returns to Lake Lanier

Written By: Carla Francis

Swimmers Dive in Head First to Cure Cancer

Diving into Lake Lanier’s blue-green waters in 2017, 13-year-old Grace Bunke knew it would likely be her last time participating in Atlanta’s Swim Across America event. Setting a personal time record that day, she was motivated by both a love of swimming and by the event’s purpose: raising money for lifesaving cancer research and clinical trials. Though her own cancer diagnosis was terminal, Grace swam in hopes of preventing others from receiving the same news and in support of her cherished medical team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Swim Across America (SAA) was formed in 1987 to “unite the swimming community by hosting benefit swims that raise money to fund lifesaving cancer research and clinical trials.” It has grown from one annual swim in Massachusetts to over 120 annual swims across the country, raising over $80 million nationally. 

In 2013, Atlanta held its inaugural SAA Open Water Swim on Lake Spivey, quickly outgrowing this venue as the swimming community rallied around the mission. On September 28, the event will be held in Hall County at Lake Lanier Islands, where nearly 2,000 swimmers, volunteers and spectators are expected to attend. Swimmers, who can register as individuals or as part of a team, will swim either a half-mile, 1-mile or 5K course or dip into a youth-friendly “Duck Splash Zone.” 

Described as one of the most moving and inspiring events of the year, SAA-Atlanta brings a tidal wave of cheering crowds, high-fives and momentum. On event day, the energy channeled into the fight against cancer is palpable; everyone there has a personal motivation for being present. The swim also serves as a celebration of successes – fundraising goals met, cancer survivors’ good health, strides made in cancer research – and as a time of rededication to the work yet to be done.

A main ingredient of SAA’s recipe for success is the participation of celebrity “Swim Olympians.” Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte, Jenny Thompson and nearly 130 others have volunteered their time at events across the nation. These celebrity guests provide the double benefit of increasing public awareness while raising funds for the cause. 

Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and homegrown Georgian Steve Lundquist has volunteered with SAA since its early days in Massachusetts and is a dedicated volunteer with SAA-Atlanta. Visiting patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is “one of the Olympians’ most cherished roles in SAA” according to Lundquist, which motivates them to “put these oncologists out of business.” Lundquist explains that most Olympians leave the swimming to registrants, choosing instead to serve as water volunteers and participating in Olympian autograph sessions. Over 20 Olympians are expected to be in attendance at this year’s swim in Atlanta!

Each SAA event across the nation supports a local beneficiary, with funds raised through SAA-Atlanta benefiting the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. To date, SAA-Atlanta has donated $1.75 million to the center, which is ranked in the top 2 percent in the country for Children’s Oncology Group therapeutic clinical trial enrollment, with more than 400 clinical trials available to patients.

SAA-Atlanta funding has supported research within two main categories: leukemia and pediatric brain cancer. Utilizing this funding, researchers have made important progress and have been able to conduct clinical trials with both pediatric and adult patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Additionally, in 2019 a team is scheduled to begin conducting a pediatric trial of the drug WP1066, a potential inhibitor of brain tumor initiation and growth that was identified at the Aflac Cancer Center’s Swim Across America Lab.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the MD Anderson Cancer Center are a few high-profile beneficiaries of SAA events outside of Atlanta. Nationwide, “SAA funding has played a major role in clinically developing the four FDA-approved immunotherapy medicines ipilimumab (YERVOY), nivolumab (OPDIVO), pembrolizumab (KEYTRUDA) and atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ),” according to Dr. Jedd Wolchok, co-director of the Swim Across America Laboratory and chief of melanoma and immunotherapeutics service at MSK.

For those readers who are already donning their swim caps for September 28, visit www.swimacrossamerica.org to register or donate. Registration is capped at about 600 swimmers (to ensure safety), and organizers expect to sell out several weeks prior to the event. Registrants must raise a minimum of $400 by event day to participate, though many raise well beyond this requirement.

You don’t have to be a swimmer to support SAA, however. Alison Millsaps, SAA-Atlanta event co-director weighs in: “We encourage people to participate as land or water volunteers or to contribute financially as a corporate sponsor or individual donor.”

This September hundreds of individual swimmers will dive into Lake Lanier with the collective goal of ending cancer. Though they’ve each challenged themselves to swim a specific distance, the words of the late “Amazing Grace” Bunke will guide everyone’s overall sentiment: “Hope has no finish line.”   

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