Swimmers cross the bay in the 2010 Swim Across America. Photo: SAA

About a year and a half ago, Steve Barbour, the CFO of Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream, decided to take up swimming to get back in shape. While he had loved the water while growing up in southern California, he had stopped exercising regularly and his inactivity was beginning to show on his 52-year-old frame.

Barbour started swimming every day at 6:00 am at the pool at the Claremont Hotel. He got to know Susan Helmrich, a three-time cancer survivor and regular morning swimmer, who convinced Barbour to join her team at Swim Across America, a fundraiser for cancer research.

Barbour joined Helmrich’s team, but within a few months the cause took on a deeper and more personal meaning. On August 20th, a colleague’s 19-year old son died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He was sick for three years,” said Barbour in a recent phone interview, speaking about David Stroud, emotion choking his voice. “It was really hard. Here’s a good kid. He spends over 400 days in the hospital over three years. He had countless surgeries. He passed away two weeks shy of his 20th birthday.”

Shortly before his death, Stroud had written Barbour a letter, thanking him for raising funds for cancer research through Swim Across America.

“Dear Mr. Barbour,” the letter began. “I heard about your upcoming swim and I wanted to let you know what an encouragement your support and time mean to cancer warriors like Susan [Helmrich] and me… It makes us feel there is a reason to continue to fight this very challenging battle. You are not only an encouragement to Susan but also to me and other warriors and survivors. Best of luck.”

On Saturday morning, Barbour will join about 130 swimmers, including ten former Olympians, at Swim Across America, a 1.5 mile swim from under the Golden Gate Bridge to Crissy Field in San Francisco. The swimmers hope to raise $300,000 to benefit cancer research and treatment programs at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco and Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.

Berkeleyside is proud to be a media sponsor of this event.

In the last few years, Swim Across America has raised about $500,000 for the two hospitals, according to Helmrich, the event coordinator for San Francisco, who lives in Berkeley. Nationally, Swim Across America has raised $30 million for cancer research.

Swimmers emerging from bay at 2010 Swim Across America. Photo by Joanne Spenser/Chiildren's Hospital

Mary Kay Murlas of Berkeley has participated in Swim Across America for three years. The first year she swam with her daughter and her daughter’s friend in honor of a cousin who had died six months earlier of leukemia and her daughter’s former college boyfriend, who died of bone cancer at 20.

The next year she volunteered to help out and convinced a friend to join her. Last year, two co-workers also volunteered. This year 12 people from her office, Stat Revenue, which just moved from Berkeley to Emeryville, are going to work at the event.

“We feel very committed to doing it,” said Murlas. “It is a fabulous event. It is so upbeat.”

Stroud’s death in August prompted Barbour to intensify his fundraising efforts. He now has more than $20,000 in pledges. Many family members and friends have donated, as has Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream and other companies Barbour has interacted with professionally. Swim Across America is such a good cause, people can’t say no, he said.

“They raise a lot of money and it’s for a great cause. Kids. You can’t beat that,” said Barbour.

To donate to Swim Across America/San Francisco, click here. To look at the members of Swim Susan, the team with Helmrich and Barbour, click here.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...