Participants in a 2016 Swim Across America event in Nantucket.

Photo: Courtesy of Swim Across America

Making Waves in Cancer Research

Swim Across America, a nonprofit founded by a BC alum, is the subject of a new documentary series.

Last fall, three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel became the first woman to swim the 10.4 miles from the Rhode Island mainland to Block Island. Beisel performed the history-making feat to raise money for Swim Across America, a nonprofit founded by a BC graduate that has granted more than $100 million for cancer research and is the subject of a recent Discovery Life documentary series.

Beisel swam in honor of her late father, Ted, who had died two months earlier from pancreatic cancer. She is one of more than 150 Olympians who have participated in Swim Across America events. Today, the organization hosts twenty-one open-water swims across the country each year, but it all started with Matt Vossler ’84, his BC friends, and a 1987 swim across Long Island Sound that raised $5,000.

Vossler got the idea for the original swim from a charity run he and his friends had organized three years earlier. In 1984, Vossler, Hugh Curran, and Jeff Keith ’84—who had lost his leg to cancer as a teenager—spent eight months running from Boston to Los Angeles. Billed as Jeff Keith’s Run Across America, it raised $1 million for the American Cancer Society. Vossler returned to the East Coast motivated to continue fundraising, and his Swim Across the Sound grew into Swim Across America, which was incorporated into a public charity in 1992.

Swim Across America’s philanthropic focus is on research and clinical trials. The organization helped finance the early studies of immunologist Jim Allison, for instance. Allison shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for pioneering cancer therapies that mobilize the immune system to attack tumors. Swim Across America also provided funding for the initial clinical trials at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute that led to the development of Keytruda, a drug approved by the FDA in 2014 that is used to treat several types of cancer. “The people we were funding in the late ’90s,” Vossler said, “are now the people running the labs and helping build the next generation.”

Swim Across America and the thousands of lives it has impacted over the past three decades were the subject of a documentary series that premiered on Discovery Life last summer called WaveMakers. And while the organization may have international reach, its roots are still in the Boston College community, with alumni on the board of directors and among its employees. Mary McCullagh ’85, a former BC swimmer, works as event manager at the SAA headquarters. “The BC impact is truly being felt across the country,” she said. “But more importantly, it’s being felt by the countless folks that have been touched by cancer.” 

 Swim Across America by the Numbers 



The amount of money for cancer research raised by Swim Across America events. 


Photos of Michael Phelps and Jenny Thompson


The number of Olympians—including Michael Phelps and Jenny Thompson —who have swum in Swim Across America events.



The number of named Swim Across America research labs in the United States.


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