BHS students fundraise for cancer research


On Sept. 30, the annual Swim Across America (SAA) charity event was held. This year, about 200 swimmers attended, including several Berkeley High School (BHS) students, to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

A lot of planning goes into the event each year. Susan Helmrich, a swim coach at BHS, has organized the event for the last 15 years. She said, “We start planning for the event almost a year in advance. We’ll get our date for next year within a week or two (of the swim finishing).” 

There are land volunteers that help with set up, clean up, and welcoming swimmers as they finish. On the water there is a team of support kayakers and boaters, as well as Olympians and angel swimmers. Angel swimmers help to facilitate swimming by assisting newer swimmers, some of whom are cancer survivors, and by keeping everyone safe. 

Maya Merhige is a junior at BHS and was an angel swimmer for SAA. She was also president of the Junior Advisory Board with Morgan Ostrer as her vice president. The board is a collection of young people who are passionate about swimming, cancer research, and getting more youth involved in the swim. 

Before the swim, some cancer survivors and doctors who are receiving money from the swim gave speeches. Mateo Knapp, a participating swimmer and BHS student, explained how the speeches helped swimmers understand the significance of the fundraiser. “There’s a lot of motivation going around,” said Knapp. “It was meaningful to understand where these funds were going … all that money we fundraised was directly going somewhere and wouldn’t be lost in a pile of money.” 

In the past, there have been issues with swimmers getting hypothermia, but everything went smoothly this year. The swim was about 1.5 miles, and the fastest swimmers this year took about fifteen minutes because the currents were flowing in their favor.

Knapp explained his response to the swim, “I felt like I could do something in support of cancer through my sport, something I love to do. I felt really great about it overall and had a positive impact on something that I care about.”

All swimmers are required to raise five hundred dollars before swimming or three hundred if they’re younger than sixteen. Swimmers also have the option to join a team which creates a comradery and sense of unity leading up to the swim. 

Helmrich has led Team Susan for 18 years, which Merhige and other BHS students were a part of. The first year that Team Susan competed, only three members competed for the team. This year, 53 swimmers were part of Team Susan. Over the 18 years of SAA, Team Susan has raised around $1.1 million. 

Helmrich was inspired to start Team Susan because of her passion for fundng cancer research. “I am a three time cancer survivor, said Helmrich. “Swimming is really important to me and raising awareness for cancer survival and raising money for cancer research is really my passion.” This year, Team Susan raised about $140,000 out of the $413,831 for SAA raised. 

This money is distributed to two different programs; the survivorship program, which aids kids who have had cancer in their lives, and Doctor Julie Saba, who runs a lab at the Oakland UCSF Children’s hospital. She studies cancer at a cellular level, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and medication that treat cancer cells. 

Knapp added, “I think the first part of it is being aware of the situation, like the lack of resources and cancer research … The first step is spreading the word.”