A former elite, record-breaking swimmer is taking on her most difficult challenge - her son's cancer. But, thanks to support from family, friends, and an organization that shares her love of swimming, her son and family are forging ahead, stronger than ever.
Mary Ellen Blanchard Warta is a well-known figure in Atlanta. She was a champion swimmer at Stanford University, breaking the U.S. Open record in the 200-yard breaststroke and in 1989 and 1991, she went on to win 10 National titles. While she swam at Stanford, the team won four straight NCAA swimming championships. In 2011, she was inducted into the Gwinnett Sports Hall of Fame in Georgia.
In 2012, Mary Ellen's son Jonas was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina, when he was just 3 years old. After getting his right eye removed and starting chemotherapy, just 3 months later Jonas beat his cancer and was fitted with a prosthetic eye.
The same year, the president of Swim Across America and former Stanford teammate of Mary Ellen, Janel Joregensen-McArdle, reached out to her to talk about her family's story. Swim Across America is a non-profit that puts on an open water swim events to raise money for children like Jonas who are fighting cancer. After speaking to the group in Atlanta, Mary Ellen decided to start Team Jonas—and was ecstatic to use swimming to help find a cure for childhood cancer. "I felt that our gift to Swim Across America was our family's story," says Mary Ellen.
Just 2 swimmers signed up that first summer, raising $2,500. But today, Team Jonas is 60 swimmers strong and has raised over $23,000. The Swim Across America Atlanta group has raised well over $1 million since 2013 and hopes to raise $500,000 this year. "People want to fight cancer" says Swim Across America's Director of Events, Megan Melgaard. "And that's how we unite."
Swim Across America is the inspired sequel to a triumphant Run Across America in 1985, completed by the two founders of SAA, Jeff Keith and Matt Vossler. In 1987, Keith and Vossler decided to bring their cause back home and transitioned from running for a cure to swimming for a cure with a focus on raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention, and treatment.
All proceeds from the 2016 and 2017 Atlanta swim events support pediatric oncology and leukemia research at the Swim Across America Lab, located at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
"Cancer doesn't choose who survives or who passes on." Mary Ellen reflected. "For our family, we were lucky our child lived."
For more information on Swim Across America, visit swimacrossamerica.org.
This HooplaHa original video was produced by Tracy Chevrier, shot by Gil Braum, and edited by Matt Binetti.
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