Kristy Kowal (right), a silver medalist at the 2000 Summer Olympics, first got involved with Swim Across America in 2010, one year after her grandfather lost his battle with cancer. Stillscapes Photography Studio

When Swim Across America was founded in 1977, the purpose was twofold: Help fund cancer research, and provide hope for patients and loved ones. In more than three decades since, the organization has raised more than $75 million, most of which has gone towards supporting clinical trials at hospitals around the country.

On Sunday, Swim Across America returns to the Lowcountry for one of its 18 open water events held across the country. The second annual Kiawah swim begins at 8:30 a.m. at Night Heron Park. Two swimming options, a 0.5-mile course and a 1.5-mile course, will be offered.

“Thirty years ago, when Swim Across America was created, if you were diagnosed with cancer the options were surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” Swim Across America CEO Rob Butcher said. “Swim Across America was hopeful that we could create a model that would fund those whiteboard ideas that oncologists across the country, young investigators in particular, would have. At the time, this was really novel — things like immunotherapy and personalized medicine and gene therapy.”

Nationally, the program raised over $5 million in 2017, with more than 150,000 swimmers participating in an event. The initial Kiawah event drew about 50 swimmers, and between 100 and 125 are expected in 2018. Butcher expects that the event will raise $50,000, which he said will cover the entire costs of one clinical study.

More than 100 Olympic swimmers have partnered with Swim Across America in the past, and the Charleston swim will feature two, both silver medalists: Steve Gregg (1976) and Kristy Kowal (2000).

Kowal explained that she first got involved with Swim Across America in 2010, one year after her grandfather lost his battle with cancer.

“I think cancer is one of those things that so many people have had experiences with—losing family members or loved ones or friends—and it really makes you feel powerless,” Kowal said. “Becoming involved in Swim Across America is something that gives you a feeling of being able to do something, to help people, to help people fight.”

Kowal will bring her Olympic medal, which she won in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and she will let participants wear the medal before they swim. Kowal called herself the “official spirit-bringer and cheerleader” for the event.

“I’m firmly a believer that if you can use something that you’re passionate about, like swimming, and use it for something that’s good and be able to give back in any sort of way,” she said. “I like to keep the energy high and make sure that people are having fun. That’s what these events are. It’s not a race—it’s an event, and it’s for people to come out for an awesome cause and an awesome event.”

Most Swim Across America events directly benefit a local partner, but proceeds from the Kiawah event will go towards the National Science Committee to be divided among beneficiaries nationwide. Swim Across America has expressed interest in partnering with the Hollings Cancer Center at the MUSC for future swims.

Butcher views the Kiawah swim as a future staple of the Swim Across America schedule, and he’s hopeful the destination can attract participants from around the country.

“We like the community. We think we can create a really awesome experience, and the Kiawah partners have been incredible,” he said. “We’re committed to Kiawah for the long-haul.”

Registration for the race is available at swimacrossamerica.org until the end of the day Saturday, and interested participants can also register between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. on race day.