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Swimmers raise nearly $200,000 for cancer research at inaugural event

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By Deborah Swearingen

A gleam of sunshine reflected off Chatfield Reservoir on Sunday morning as swimmers dashed into the water on the count of 10.

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It didn’t matter whether the swimmers were participating in the 5K, mile or half-mile. After all, Sunday wasn’t a race. It was a fundraiser for cancer research.

Swim Across America, a national nonprofit that organizes benefit swims to raise money for cancer research and clinical trials, hosted its inaugural Denver event at Chatfield State Park last weekend. Competitors were required to raise money in order to participate with all proceeds donated to Children’s Hospital Colorado Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. At the end of the day, the event raised nearly $200,000.

“We want to be able to come in and fund those whiteboard, research ideas that oncologists have,” said Rob Butcher, Swim Across America’s CEO. “ … We want to provide more hope.”

Organizer Nicole Vanderpoel loves that proceeds from Swim Across America events stay in the community and can often help a local family remain at home for treatment. Vanderpoel is a swimmer, and she loves kids. When she found out about Swim Across America in July 2017, she immediately began working to coordinate an event in metro Denver.

“I knew it was something that I was definitely being called to do. That’s how I felt,” she said.

On Sunday, there were cancer survivors competing, as well as swimmers honoring loved ones lost to cancer. In this regard, the open-water swims can be liberating. Since it was not a race, participants were invited to take a break from swimming in order to float in the calm waters of Chatfield and consider the real meaning of the event.

“They want to feel empowered. This gives them a platform to be able to be empowered. They can tell their story and they can do it under a community umbrella,” Butcher said.

For others, participation in the event was even simpler than that. Henry Oberley, a swimmer on the Colorado School of Mines team, said the event served as the perfect chance to volunteer and have fun at the same time.

Missy Franklin was among the Olympians in attendance at the event, and she said it’s a treat to be able to combine two things she passionate about — kids and swimming.

“Going across the country, doing these incredible swims and also raising money for pediatric cancer … it’s just an unbelievable event,” she said.

The day before the open-water swim, Franklin had the opportunity to visit Children’s Hospital Colorado to meet the local recipient of the Swim Across America grant and some patients that are now cancer survivors. All in all, it left her speechless.

Plus, considering Franklin is from Colorado, it’s always special to be home.

“To have it here just feels so surreal,” Franklin said. “ … To be home and swimming and every time I breathe looking at the Rocky Mountains, it’s just like the best feeling ever.”