WSJ Article: Swim Across America – a “kinder, gentler” fundraiser

Runs, walks and bikes are the go-to for many charity fundraisers. But a Boston-based group has made swimming the focus of raising money and, in the process, funneled over $40 million in donations to cancer charities across the country.

Swim Across America, founded 25 years ago, began with an open water swim in Nantucket, Mass. Now, the organization hosts some 17 open-water swims across the country, including swims under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and a lake in Dallas. Funds are raised by sponsoring swimmers and any donations stay within the community where the event is held and benefit local cancer organizations. The organization plans to raise between $5 and $6 million this year between open-water and pool swims.

This Saturday, organizers in the Greenwich and Stamford, Conn., areas will host a sixth-annual swim. Distances are a ½-mile up to five miles. The event is expected to draw more than 300 swimmers of all skill levels and raise about $500,000 for the Stamford, Conn.-based Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy. ACGT focuses on funding innovative cancer treatments for some 11 different kinds of cancer including lymphoma, prostate, breast and ovarian cancers.

[image]JANEL JORGENSEN MCARDLE

What drives the organization is focusing the events on a commitment to cancer research and not the race, says Janel Jorgensen McArdle, president and chief executive of Swim Across America.

Doctors and researchers attend the event and make presentations for the swimmers so they participants will know exactly where the donations are going.

The events draw recreational swimmers, cancer survivors and even some Olympians. Ms. McArdle, who has raised money in Swim Across America events, is originally from Ridgefield, Conn., and grew up swimming at a YMCA in Wilton, Conn. As a teenager she swam with the 1988 Olympic team and earned a silver medal in the women’s 400 medley relay. (She keeps her medal handy to show kids when she teaches swim clinics.)

Ms. McArdle stresses that the swims are designed to be fun. “It’s not a race or a triathlon,” she says. “It’s a kinder, gentler event. The focus is not on who wins, but who raises the most money.”

Greenwich is the first big swim in the region. The Larchmont swim, to be held July 28 in Long Island Sound, will raise an estimated $1.3 million for New York-based cancer organizations. Open water swims in New York are also planned for Amagansett in July and Glen Cove in August, both with goals of $750,000.

Ms. McArdle says that the organization’s goal is to expand the number of swims nationally and to reach a $10 million-a-year goal within the next five years.

“There are all of these people swimming for their own reasons and that’s what makes the event so powerful,” she says. “Unfortunately everybody is touched by cancer. So when you get this passionate group that’s trying to make a difference…it’s really an impact.”

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