Swim Across America started out as a small organization to raise awareness for cancer research. Today, it’s spread across the country, with chapters in several U.S. cities. Here in Atlanta, it’s signature fundraiser is an Olympic-swimmer-studded event that inspires and impacts its beneficiaries as well as participants.
The Open Water Swim, held this year on September 22 at Lake Lanier, attracts the largest number of participants and raises the most funds for the Aflac Center & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. (Swim Across America events donate money back to hospitals and research cities in the areas that they are held so that participants can directly see the impact.) While the first open swim in 2013 drew about 200 people, the event now draws nearly 1,000 to Lake Lanier and has sold out for the past few years.
“People refer to [Atlanta’s Open Water Swim] as the ‘Super Bowl of Swimming,'” says event director Nancy Tao. “We attract the largest number of Olympians.”
One of them, gold medalist Steve Lundquist, was instrumental in starting the Atlanta SAA chapter. He helped organize the first Open Water Swim at Lake Spivey, where it was held for three years before moving to Lake Lanier. Lindquist has been part of SAA events since the national nonprofit was founded in 1987, only three years after his record-breaking appearance at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Other Olympic names who are often involved in Atlanta SAA events: 1996 Olympian and Atlanta resident Peter Wright; five-time gold medalist and University of Georgia student Missy Franklin; four-time silver medalist and former UGA swimmer, Kara Lynn Joyce, who will swim at this year’s event for the first time; and 17-year-old Paralympian and Dacula native McClain Hermes, who will also swim at this year’s event.
The Olympians often play the role of “angel swimmers” during the event, helping any stragglers reach the finish line.
“We’re not there to compete as much as to help out the competitors,” explains Wright. “[The participants] have different skill levels, and some might even be novice swimmers. So we wear a different colored cap and help or encourage those that are at the back of the field, who are maybe struggling a little bit, and make sure everyone’s safe and having a good time.”
There are four distances at the swim meet: The half-mile, the mile, two-mile relay, and 5K. And since last year, the Duck Splash, a shorter, fun activity for those who want to participate in the fundraiser but aren’t up for a longer race, takes place before the other events.
Each participant is committed to a fundraising minimum of $400—$200 for swimmers under 18—but event director Nancy Tao said that most teams, as well as individuals, exceed the cap. Swimmers that reach $1000 are upgraded to WaveMaker status, which includes gifts and access to a special photo booth, and according to Tao, bragging privileges that include a highly coveted WaveMaker temporary tattoo. Teams that raise more than $10,000 have access to the VIP Team Zone along with perks like team meet-up tents, refreshments, and t-shirts. This year Tao expects at least 10 teams to reach that status.
Atlanta has one of the largest fundraising sums among other SAA chapters nationwide, with more than $570,000 already collected for this year’s swim.
This year’s top fundraiser is the late Grace Bunke, an osteosarcoma patient and avid advocate and participant in SAA activities until she died in March just one day shy of her 15th birthday. Bunke—who had her left leg amputated below the knee due to the cancer and underwent a unique surgery that replaced her knee with her ankle joint—was a freshman at Walton High School in Marietta, where she was on the swim team and also part of the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team. Her goal was to be the top fundraiser for this year’s event, a goal her family and friends were able to help achieve by donating and swimming as part of her team. An award in her name will also be given at the event.
One person on Bunke’s team is 12-year-old Kyle Klerk, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2016 and quickly became involved with SAA. He serves as an ambassador for the Atlanta chapter, spreading the word about the nonprofit and collecting donations.
“I’m an ambassador for a lot of groups, but Swim Across America is by far one of my favorites,” he says. He and his family raise funds for SAA through Facebook posts and garage sales. For his birthday this year, Kyle asked people to donate to SAA and to Grace’s team instead of giving him presents.
“We know that Swim Across America was extremely important to Grace because swimming was something she could do despite her cancer, and even when it came back and it was really bad, she still swam,” Kyle’s mother, Dee, says. “I know the kids really admired her.”
The Atlanta SAA chapter has raised over $1.5 million for the Aflac Center at CHOA and $75 million nationwide.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed with [Swim Across America] itself and how it started off from a really small group and spread across the country,” Wright says. “I think it’s amazing that the chapters in each city donate locally, and I think that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is one of the greatest hospitals in the world. So the fact that [our chapter] gives back locally [to them] is a big plus.”