Feature by Jeff Commings
DALLAS, Texas, June 8. DANIEL Watters' swim in the San Francisco Bay in 2009 as a favor to a fellow Olympian turned into a lifelong passion to help cure cancer.
After participating in the Swim Across America event that year in the chilly waters, Watters told 1988 Olympic teammate Janel Jorgensen, the organization's executive director, that he had an idea to start such an event in his hometown of Dallas.
“I fell in love with the program and what Swim Across America stands for,” said Watters, who swam the 100 breast in the Seoul Olympics. “It's also emotional because you have a lot of cancer survivors, and you get to hear all their stories.”
Watters' idea was realized last year, when he and others introduced the inaugural Dallas open water swim. The second annual Dallas event begins today with a special clinic featuring about a dozen Olympians and continues tomorrow with a series of open water swims in Lake Ray Hubbard.
It is one of more than 50 pool and open water events to be held this year under the Swim Across America banner in an effort to fight cancer and spread awareness.
Besides Watters, this weekend's event will feature a large contingent of Olympians doing their part to help fund cancer research. Among the names scheduled to participate include: Josh Davis, Aaron Peirsol, Ryan Berube, Neil Walker, Kirk Stackle and Andrea (Hayes) Dickson.
Swim Across America was founded by Jeff Keith and Matt Vossler in 1987 as a follow-up to a 1985 running event they participated in to fund cancer research. Now in its 25th year, Swim Across America has grown from a single event in Massachusetts that first year and raised more than $40 million for cancer research centers across the United States.
Being an Olympian himself, Watters said he had little resistance in asking some of his friends to bring some celebrity status to the event, but what he's most looking forward to this year is hearing stories from people who have been afflicted with cancer, or helping a loved one through the disease. It was one of the most memorable parts of his first association with Swim Across America in 2009.
“When you hear someone say 'I'm a three-time cancer survivor,' and they're about to jump into the San Francisco Bay, it is so powerful, and it binds you to the cause,” Watters said. “That's important to me in terms of understanding why we do it.”
These stories are told in a pre-swim ritual called “Why I Swim,” in which participants talk about their connections to cancer.
Watters, 41, lost an aunt in 2001 to stomach cancer and is celebrating a nephew's recovery from cancer, so each year he has a personal connection to the event. His three-year involvement has also had a surprising side effect: He's found himself back in the pool to get in shape for the swims. Watters said he avoided swimming for much of his 30s.
“Now, I'm involved in Masters swimming in Dallas, and I'm enjoying being back in the water,” he said.
Rebecca Gonzales had a similar epiphany when she participated in last year's open water swim in Dallas. Though not an Olympic swimmer, Gonzales has been involved with swimming in some fashion for many years and could not pass up the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Dallas swim, despite the fact that she hadn't done an open water swim in about seven years. She has since found a renewed interest in swimming throughout the year.
Though a cancer connection through family members made last year's event special for Gonzales, a cancer scare in February has made this year's event even more poignant.
“I was so relieved that it (the biopsy results) didn't show cancer,” Gonzales said. “I went to the pool the next day and swam a few extra laps!”
Gonzales has so far raised the most money for the half-mile swim, with nearly $2,800 to her credit as of today. Watters said the overall goal is to raise $300,000, about $100,000 more than last year's goal and equal to the total donations received at last year's event. As of Friday morning, the tally stood at $249,757.70.
All of the money raised at Swim Across America events stays in the area and is donated to local hospitals devoted to cancer research. The funds raised in Dallas on Saturday will be given to the Innovative Clinical Trials Center at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.
“I'm not a doctor, researcher or a nurse so I can't be on the frontline in this fight,” Watters said. “But if I can apply my resources in the swimming world to help those people, then it's worth it.”
To donate to the Dallas Open Water Swim, click here.
To find a Swim Across America event in your area, click here.
Send feature ideas to Jeff Commings at jeffc@SwimmingWorldMagazine.com