Annual open water swim at Lake Lanier makes waves to fight cancer

You have cancer.

It had been a long time since Steve Lundquist had heard those three words and his grandmother lost her battle with stomach cancer.

And so when his agent told him about a group of people who were planning to gather at Nantucket, the tiny island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for a swim that would raise money for cancer prevention and research, the Olympic swimmer was all in.

That was probably 30 years ago when Lundquist had hair and could swim the 100-meter breast struck in, oh, just over a minute.

Now 61, the chances of that happening are virtually nil but come Saturday, Sept. 24, Lundquist will join more than 100 swimmers, including about a dozen Olympians, for yet another Swim Across America Atlanta event.

The annual fundraiser benefits the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, an estimated 15,780 children between birth and 19 years of age are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States.

For Lundquist, 2022, which marks the 10th anniversary of Atlanta’s swim, comes with perhaps even more urgency. The Jonesboro resident’s sister-in-law Deanne Lundquist of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a week ago.

Credit: Courtesy of Swim Across America

Credit: Courtesy of Swim Across America

Sheri Hart, who helped birth Swim Atlanta, knows what that’s like. When she helped found Swim Across America Atlanta, a 6-year-old family friend was battling medulloblastoma, a brain tumor of the cerebellum.

“While I had several older family members impacted by cancer, this was a tough one to witness,” Hart said in an email exchange. “I also learned that very little money was being allocated by the National Institutes of Health for innovative treatments for childhood cancers, especially brain cancer.”

Shortly after moving from Seattle to Atlanta in 2012, Hart, a former All-American swimmer at the University of Southern California and a finalist for the 1988 Olympic Trials, got a call from Janel Jorgensen, a former college rival turned Swim Across America president.

Would she be willing to start Swim Across America in Atlanta?

Hart liked the model. She loved that the maximum amount of money could go directly to cancer research; and that each city had the autonomy to select the doctors and institutions who would receive the funding.

“As luck would have it, Dr. Tobey MacDonald, at The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was heading three pivotal studies relating to medulloblastoma, and collaborating with our friend’s doctor in Seattle,” Hart recalled.

Soon, Hart would track down former U.S. National Swim Team member Megan Melgaard, and hometown Olympic gold medalist Lundquist, who agreed to help her. They raised $250,000 that first year; $2.6 million since then.

Credit: Courtesy of Swim Across America

Credit: Courtesy of Swim Across America

Dr. MacDonald, who for three years received funding from the swims, was able to develop targeted treatments for kids with medulloblastoma that significantly improve their outcomes.

“That is real change,” Hart said. “With Swim Across America, you get to actually see the impact you are making in the fight against cancer. It’s personal, real, and life-changing.”

The past decade, Hart said, has been “like having children. You forget how hard the early years were when you get to see the fruits of your labor in action years later. It’s very gratifying and still very humbling.”


IF YOU GO

Swim Across America - Atlanta Open Water Swim

Check in at 7:00 a.m. Sept. 24. Lake Lanier Olympic Park, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville. To register as a swimmer or volunteer, visit swimacrossamerica.org/atlanta. For more information, contact nicoleschwartz@swimacrossamerica.org or alisonmillsaps@swimacrossamerica.org.