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Swimmers make waves for cancer cure as Swim Across America raises $400K at Lanier Islands
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Alyssa Hitzel, 12, finishes her 5K swim during Swim Across America’s Atlanta Open Water Swim Saturday at Lanier Islands. Hitzel swims for Dynamo Swim Club in Chamblee. - photo by Erin O. Smith

“Making waves to fight cancer” was the order of the morning Saturday as about 500 people joined Swim Across America to raise money for research about the disease.

Lots of waves were created with a bit more than 500 swimmers churning up Lake Lanier in the fourth annual Atlanta Open Water Swim. The event attracted several hundred spectators, in addition to the swimmers.

The swims included 1-mile, 5K and relay options in and around Sunset Cove at Lanier Islands.

The event Saturday raised about $400,000 for cancer research. Swim Across America has raised more than $1 million in its four years.

Results are expected to be posted later on the event website,

Swimmers wrote on their shoulders, arms and backs those in their families or friends affected by cancer.

“I swim for uncle Jimmy,” one boy had on his shoulder.

“I’m swimming for my great-aunt and my great-grandmother,” a girl had on her back.

“I’m swimming for Chip,” another had.

The crowd arrived early with swimmers of all ages and sexes. Couples were plentiful. Schools brought teams.

Meghan Tanner of Atlanta explained she would swim on Holy Innocent’s Episcopal School’s relay team. She is a member of the junior advisory board for Swim Across America and one of three board members from her school.

Her school raised more than $12,000 for the event, highest total for schools.

Mary Ellen Warta of Cumming has been part of the event since it started. Her son, Jonas, 7, lost his right eye to cancer.

Warta said a pediatric cancer diagnosis has a “ripple effect” on a family. “It’s just as hard, if not harder, on the family,” in addition to the child, she said. She was swimming in the relay race.

Beth Hammond, who pronounced herself a “novice” in swimming, was in the mile swim. She took up swimming in December 2015 after she broke her foot.

“I loved it,” she said. She had been a jogger for years, starting when she was training for the Peachtree Road Race.

Swim Across America is “near and dear,” she said because she is a pediatric nurse practitioner.

Julie Granger, a former Duke swimmer and physical therapist, was planning to swim four weeks after surgery. She has cancer in her lung and will start radiation treatment after the swim event.

She was diagnosed in 2015. Treatment reduced a tumor “the size of a grapefruit to about the size of a large egg.” She had 10 hours’ surgery in May, including two titanium rods replacing ribs. One of those broke, leading to the most recent surgery.

“As Dory the fish says, ‘just keep swimming,’” Granger told the crowd.

Ten Olympians from swimming and water polo joined the group to draw attention to the cause. The Olympians signed a blizzard of autographs for an hour. Participating were Missy Franklin, Geoff Gaberino, Doug Gjertsen, Joe Hudepohl, Kristy Kowal, Steve Lundquist, Megan Meyer, Heather Petri, Daniel Watter and Peter Wright.

Kowal is a former University of Georgia swimmer. Lundquist grew up in Georgia and now lives in Stockbridge. Wright lives in Smyrna. Gjertsen is the head coach for Swim Atlanta.

Each race brought a safety talk from Rob Copeland. He explained the course and the people who would be along the course in kayaks or boats or jet skis to help anyone who need it.

For the relay swim, he said, the water is pretty shallow. “If you need to take a break, stand up.”