By Francesca Normile
Swimming Across America is an organization born out of an incredible feat that occurred in 1985, when two young men, Jeff Keith and Matt Vossler, ran from Boston to Los Angeles with the goal of fighting cancer.
And as if running that distance wasn’t impressive enough, Keith ran it with one leg missing, a result of his childhood battle with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that most frequently plagues children. Their success, raising over $1 million for cancer research, has since stretched beyond that triumphant run into the creation of Swimming Across America, a non-profit group the two friends founded in 1987, which this year will benefit two local charities.
The group has grown rapidly, now with over 3,000 swimmers participating on an annual basis (ranging in age from seven to 78, including a large number of past and present Olympians) and raises around $4 million annually as accumulated from its numerous participating locations across America. This week, on July 3, Swimming Across America is joining up again with East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad and the Sag Harbor-based Fighting Chance for a one-and-a half-mile swim in Gardner’s Bay in Amagansett.
Gerry Oakes, who has been chair of the Swimming Across America Nassau/Suffolk Committee since 2001, speaks of the evolution of SAA in Long Island. Starting in Nassau County, the Nassau/Suffolk Committee has since expanded across the island as more communities have sought its presence and offered support to the group. Addressing their presence on the East End, Oakes explains, “We connected with Fighting Chance about two-and-a-half years ago. We were really impressed with how many people their organization was helping on the East End, free of charge. I told [founder] Duncan Darrow, ‘We’d love to help you grow more, and a way to do that is to start an [SAA] event in your neighborhood.’”
Talking to Jim Arnold of the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad soon after that, Oakes saw that the event had great potential to be a success, pulling together three organizations that shared a common goal of raising money to fight cancer. Steve Brierly, EH VORS Captain, expressed his enthusiasm about the collaboration saying, “The Ocean Rescue Squad is very excited to be a part of this wonderful event. I myself being a cancer survivor after being diagnosed less than a year ago with Prostate Cancer and another OR member, Jeff Bogetti, presently fighting brain cancer, made it a very easy decision to [partake in this event].”
According to Oakes, around 120 swimmers and 60 volunteers are expected at the event, including the potential participation of two former Olympians. These are Carlos Arena of the 1996 Mexican swim team and Craig Beardsley of the 1980 American swim team.
It is evident from SAA’s growth in participation, the group’s physical expansion in the U.S., and the financial success that it has enjoyed, the organization has become increasingly influential.
The proceeds from the July 3 event, according to Oakes, will go to local beneficiary, Fighting Chance, as well as towards specific areas of research/work in three cancer institutes in the metropolitan area — the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx.
Oakes expressed how impressed he was with the advancements that these three centers have been making in cancer research for a number of years now.
“Sloan-Kettering is working on providing incentive for your own immune system to attack your cancer, Cold Spring is researching to identify why bodies resist traditional lung cancer drugs, and Montifiore is the tip of the spear in a bone research that is making great strides,” says Oakes.
Oakes explains that, essentially, what SAA does is urge people to use it as a catalyst.
“What we really want to do is provide an opportunity to anyone in their community to fight cancer. And it’s a fun way to do it,” says Oakes. “You just can’t make people smile like that. I mean, everyone [participating] has a Cheshire cat grin on their face. Really. And that’s a natural reaction to doing such a good thing for their community.”
Swimmers, volunteers and supporters are welcome on July 3 at Fresh Pond Beach on Gardiner’s Bay in Amagansett, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. for the race.