Swimmers cross the Bay to Criss Field during the 2012 Swim Across America event. Photo: SAA via Facebook
Swimmers cross the Bay to Crissy Field during the 2012 Swim Across America event. Photo: SAA

By Eli Wolfe

Susan Helmrich was just 21 when she fought her first battle with cancer at Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York City. In the 37 years since that first treatment, she has been diagnosed with and survived two more cancers, the last one in 2009.

But Helmrich has not let cancer keep her down. She is a Berkeley resident, a PhD, a health and wellness coach, and an active supporter in one of the most successful annual fundraisers for cancer research in the Bay Area.

On Saturday, Oct. 5, Helmrich will plunge into the icy waters of the Bay with 250 other swimmers as they take part in Swim Across America, an annual event that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research at Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Oakland and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco.

Swimmers will gather Saturday morning at Crissy Field (if the government shut-down is resolved) or th Marina to be transported by cable cars to Pier 3. They will then board a boat for a scenic circuit around Alcatraz island before arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge, where they will jump in from boats under the bridge’s mid-span. Swimmers doing the 1.5 mile route from the Golden Gate to Crissy Field will drop in the water around 9:30am. Individuals swimming a shorter route will drop in a half-mile offshore from Crissy Field at 10:15am. The swimmers will be accompanied by 60 kayakers and 20 “swim angels” who will support anyone struggling in the rough waters.

Ten Olympians wil be involved in the Bay’s Swim Across America, including Heather Petri, a Cal alum and four-time Olympic participant who was with the 2012 gold-medal winning water polo team. The other Olympians are Craig Beardsley (1980), Mike Bruner (1976, 1980), Susan Heon-Preston (1984), Dana Kirk (2004), Sean Nolan (2000), Allsion Wagner (1996), Michael Kiedel (2000), Sean Killion (1992), and Erika Lorenz (2000 and 2004.)

There are 22 teams this year, including members from the UCSF Intensive Care Nursery, the San Mateo Athletic Club and San Mateo Masters Swim Team, the Menlo Masters Team BASS (Bay Area Survivors and Supporters), the Livermore Valley Tennis Club masters, Team Avery and Team Grant. Helmrich’s Team Susan Survives! has about 25 members, almost all of them from Berkeley, including her husband and her son.  Steve Barbour, who joined Team Susan Survives! three years ago, is the former CFO of Dreyer’s and has helped raised thousands of dollars in honor of his colleague’s son, who died at 20 of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Susan Helmrich at a race at Lake Del Valle earlier this year.
Susan Helmrich at a race at Lake Del Valle earlier this year.

After their arduous swim, the participants and their well-wishers will enjoy a party at Crissy Field with a DJ, food, merchandise, and prize giveaways. A private swim is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 6, from Alcatraz to Crissy Field, for individuals who donated $5,000 or more.

The Bay’s temperamental tides and swells always make the swim a rigorous challenge, but this year’s swim has an added twist: Crissy Field is closed to the public because of the government shutdown that went into effect Oct. 1. Helmrich said a barricaded beach may pose a problem as she expects 1,000 people to show up at the field to greet the swimmers.

In the past eight years, the Bay Area chapter of Swim Across America has raised more than $1.2 million for cancer research. This year, the San Francisco event has raised more than $400,000. The money stays in the Bay Area to support and nurture local survivors and researchers.

Berkeleyside is proud to be a sponsor of Swim Across America. For more information and to support the great cause, visit Swim Across America online.

Swim Across America check will fund local cancer research (03.14.12)
Swimmers cross the bay to raise funds for cancer research (09.21.11)
Berkeleyans brave the bay to Swim Across America (08.24.10)

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