Berkeley High School Students Swim in Support of Cancer
On Friday, October 3, several Berkeley High School students and dozens of other dedicated swimmers will brave the frigid waters of the bay, all in the name of cancer research. These swimmers will be participating in an annual event with the organization Swim Across America to raise money for a cure for cancer.
According to Susan Helmrich, race director for SF Bay Area Swim and cancer survivor herself, Swim Across America (SAA) national goal is to raise as much money as possible to help find a cure for cancer all over America. Since its creation in 1987, SAA has continued to grow and now holds dozens of events across the US. In Chicago, swimmers brave the waters of Lake Michigan, and in Boston, SAA does a 22 mile relay event starting and finishing at the Rhoves Wharf. Each of these events has unique qualities, but all are dedicated to finding a cure for cancer. In the San Francisco Bay Area, SAA holds a swim starting from underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the SF Bay area alone, SAA raised $220,000 last year, and due to the program’s low overhead costs almost every penny of that money went to cancer research. Helmrich said that “the only overhead goes to running the swim, which is not that much because we get a lot of donations [for food, t-shirts etc.]” The SF Bay area beneficiaries are Childrens Hospital Oakland and the UCSF Children’s hospital. Last year, four BHS students participated in this thrilling swim, and all four intend to participate again this year. Aly Levine, a BHS senior and daughter of Helmrich, who was unable to complete the swim last year due to sickness, is excited to be able to participate in the upcoming event. Levine said that she is doing the swim “partly because I love swimming in the bay, but a bigger part of this connects me to my mom. But especially in this swim because I do it in honor of my mom.”
Serena Sonderegger and Rachel Harrington-Abrams, both BHS seniors, will also be swimming with Levine as part of Team Susan Survives, which was created to honor Helmrich’s successful three-time defeat of cancer. They both mirrored similar sentiments. Harrington-Abrams said that “initially I was doing it because I wanted to do a bay swim, but once I got on the boat the thing for me was hearing all these [cancer] survivors talk about the reason why they were swimming and their stories about their struggles and the struggles of family and friends. It really made me want to try harder because I was lucky enough to complete the swim.”
Something that sets SAA apart from similar events is the atmosphere of the whole event. Preceding the drop off under the Golden Gate Bridge, survivors and others affected by cancer share stories, both good and bad, about fighting against cancer. Sonderegger said that last year the atmosphere was completely non-competitive. “We all were a team fighting for something. It wasn’t an intense race. I didn’t feel pressure to go fast. It was really fun and everyone was super nice,” she explained. “And unlike other big open water races, people weren’t trying to swim over me because we were fighting together for a common goal.”
Helmrich agreed that the atmosphere of the event was “emotional” because “most people who do SAA are swimming for someone. Groups get together, like Team Susan Survives, to raise money and swim in honor of a person. So it is a very personal event. The atmosphere on the boat is both emotional and warm.” Another thing that Helmrich finds particularly amazing about SAA is the fact that “a relatively small amount of people raise such a large amount of money.”
Although the swim is non-competitive, it is still an arduous feat, and to SAA, safety is paramount. Last year, large waves under the Golden Gate Bridge startled many swimmers upon entering the water, but didn’t deter them from completing the swim. Harrington-Abrams commented that “the waves were huge but the stories from all the swimmers kept me going and especially the fact that a lot of people were swimming for their children.”