South Charlotte

Swimmers go ‘out of the box’ to raise money for Levine Cancer Center

Brian Miller, former MSA team member who died in December, inspired the team name “Team Out of My Box.”
Brian Miller, former MSA team member who died in December, inspired the team name “Team Out of My Box.”

Brian Miller was in the fight for his life in March 2016, after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer 10 months earlier.

But instead of giving in or giving up, the 58-year-old south Charlotte native “chose to make the most of every day he had remaining,” according to his wife, Karen Miller.

On March 5, 2016, Miller competed in a swim meet for the first time in his life with his Mecklenburg Swim Association (MSA) Masters’ team.

Miller stole the show at the meet when he broke a minute on his leg of the 4x200-yard freestyle relay, finishing his 50-yard leg in 58.35 seconds, to a standing ovation from his MSA teammates, who lined side of the pool to cheer for him.

“That was one of those moments that you never forget,” said Bill McCormick, his MSA teammate, of Miller’s swim. “The whole thing was so overwhelming; tears just started running down my face. It was like one of those great moments out of the Olympics.”

Miller offered a different perspective, just before his first meet.

“I am so far out of my box, I can’t even see it anymore,” said Miller, to his coaches and teammates, at the time.

Team Out of My Box

Brian Miller passed away on Dec. 9.

But his words on March 5, 2016, have turned out to be prophetic, living on and inspiring his MSA team to swim in his honor.

The MSA Masters’ team dedicated their victory to Miller at the Jan. 21-22 Sunbelt Regional Swimming Championships in Charlotte, with a T-shirt saying, “I’m so far outside my box I can’t see it anymore.”

The same month, MSA Masters’ head coach Patty Waldron, 55, from south Charlotte near Matthews, and her team signed up for Charlotte’s first Swim Across America (SAA) event. Their team name: MSA Team Out of My Box.

Swim Across America holds 16 open water events across the country, where all proceeds go to local cancer research and/or clinical trials, raising more than $6 million annually, according to SAA President and Chief Executive Officer Rob Butcher.

Swim Across America, which is now headquartered in Ballantyne, also hosts 100 local swimming events in smaller communities, that Butcher says raise about $300,000-$400,000 annually overall.

The Charlotte area will host its first Swim Across America open water event Sept. 23 at the Lake Norman YMCA waterfront in Cornelius.

Each swimmer raises money to swim in either the 0.5-mile, 1.5-mile or 3-mile swim.

All proceeds from the Charlotte event will benefit leukemia research with Dr. Jonathan Gerber and his team at Carolinas Healthcare Systems’ Levine Cancer Institute. Team MSA Out of My Box, through Aug. 18, has raised $34,149 Waldon raised $8,661.

“Everybody knows somebody who has been touched or affected by cancer,” said Waldron, 55 of south Charlotte – also the team captain – who will swim three miles at the Swim Across America event. “To be able to do Swim Across America in honor of Brian Miller and for many of our swimmers, who have had cancer themselves or had family and friends who have been affected by (cancer), is very meaningful to all of us. To know that the money is going to Levine Cancer Institute, right here in Charlotte, is awesome.

Karen Miller will also attend the Swim Across America event and says it means a lot to her family in memory of her husband.

“It’s amazing what his team has done in his memory,” Karen Miller said. “It’s helped of all of us remember what a special guy he was that would try anything. He was so excited about that first swim meet. Brian lived to get out of his comfort zone, to get out of his box.”

Personal motivation

While Brian Miller has served as a major motivation to his 22-member Team Out of My Box, there are many great stories of inspiration throughout the entire group.

Anne Lynn, 51, who lives in the Ravenscroft community of Charlotte near Blakeney, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2006 and subsequently lost one of her lungs.

Despite that challenge, she will swim the half-mile next month at Swim Across America, even though her hip, also damaged by cancer, doesn’t allow her to exercise the way she once did as an Ironman participant with Waldron in 2005.

Lynn was also treated by doctors at Levine Cancer Institute.

“When Patty asked me to do this, I was out of shape,” Lynn said. “But just training for this event, I’m getting back into shape.”

Lynn calls it a great opportunity to give back to Levine Cancer Institute to the doctors that helped take care of her.

Kelly Sherin, 45, Waxhaw, is also excited to give back to Levine Cancer Institute and people that helped save her life.

Sherin was diagnosed with two types of breast cancer in June 2012.

After a three-year process that included chemotherapy, a clinical drug trial and several surgeries, she is in remission and says she’s finally starting “to feel back to normal” this year.

While she did an Ironman competition in Louisville two years ago as a “middle finger to cancer,” she says swimming in Swim Across America event is close to heart.

“The minute Patty (Waldron) brought this idea to MSA, I knew it was my small way to give back to the doctors and nurses that saved my life,” said Sherin, who will swim the 1.5-mile event. I could never fully repay them. But this is definitely something I wanted to do, to give back a little bit of what they gave me.”

Bill McCormick, 44, Weddington, and his son, Nate, 16, will both swim 3 miles at Swim Across America next month, in honor of Bill’s father, Larry, and his brother-in-law, Ally Ash, who both died from cancer.

McCormick, who swam at University of Arkansas in college, says the event is special for him on many levels.

“To be able to swim together with ) Nate, in honor of my dad and Uncle Ally, is something very special that we will never forget,” McCormick said. “We are also swimming for the memory of Brian Miller, a guy who said I’m going to continue to life to the fullest, when he could have easily given up. The courage he showed all of us is overwhelming.”

Jackie Krajewski, 48, from Matthews, is still relatively new to swimming, just beginning with MSA a little more than two years ago.

But she is taking on the 1.5-mile event next month in her first open-water swim competition.

Krajewski will also be thinking about her late father-in-law, Frank Krajewski, who was treated at Levine Cancer Institute, but later died from cancer.

“I believe in what Levine does and it’s important to know the money is going to a local place. I think a lot of people want to give local.”

Big impact

The personal motivation from within MSA Team Out of My Box, has raised nearly $33,000 already, by far the most money of 12 teams participating in the SAA Charlotte event, and one of the top numbers in the country to date.

As of Aug. 1, seven of the top 10 fundraisers for the Charlotte Swim Across America were from MSA’s Team out of My Box, led by Waldron, who has raised $8,281 herself.

“My motto has always been don’t do a bunch of little things to raise money for a cause, but do something that will be impactful and that’s been our goal from the start,” said Waldron, who is also Charlotte Latin’s head varsity swim coach.

“I had heard of SAA, but really didn’t know what they were all about. To find out they’ve been around for 30 year and are headquartered right here in Charlotte and wanted to help Levine was huge. Private funding for cancer research is very important. Nobody has not been touched by cancer in some way.”

Butcher says teams have raised about $65,000 for Swim Across America’s Charlotte open swim, with the goal being $120,000 for the event.

Swim Across America, which is supported by more than 120 U.S. Olympians, will have several local swimming celebrities at the event, such as former U.S. gold medalist and South Mecklenburg High standout, Ricky Berens, there to encourage swimmers throughout the race. Butcher is waiting on several more commitments from U.S. Olympians with local ties.

“Dancing with the Stars,” Louis Van Amstel, who is a big supporter of Swim Across America, will also be there to dance, entertain and help motivate the swimmers.

But a lot of the teams that will participate in Charlotte’s first Swim Across America are still hard at work raising money.

MSA Team Out of My Box is hoping to add even more to their total on Sept. 6 at the Bold Missy Taproom in No-Da, where $1 of each pint sold, will go to the MSA squad’s cause. The fundraiser is open to the public, from 4 to 10 p.m.

Every dollar counts

While Swim Across America events raise well over $6 million annually, and have provided $70 million to cancer research and clinical trials in their 30 years of existence, they still believe every dollar counts.

Nobody embodies the spirit of giving to Swim Across America more than 8-year old, Madelyn “Maddy” Shaw, who wanted to help her mom, Dr. Katie Shaw’s cause.

Maddy Shaw, a rising third-grader at Omni Montessori School in Blakeney, made cookies and organized a bake sale July 20 to raise her own money for her mom, who will swim the 3-mile event.

Maddy raised $33.48, which meant as much as any donation, according to Waldron.

“My mom (Katie) is doing Swim Across America and I wanted to help raise money, so that I can give to my mom,” Maddy Shaw of Waxhaw said. “I also really, really like to bake. So, I decided to make cookies.”

Upon hearing about Maddy’s contribution, Swim Across America President/CEO Rob Butcher says that is what the cause is all about.

“Our scoreboard is not about how fast you swim, but about how much money we can raise for Levine,” Butcher said. “The $33.48 is inspiring, because she took time to raise money for our cause. Every dollar raised collectively goes directly to Levine Cancer Institute, in order to benefit cancer research right here in our own community.”

Jay Edwards is a freelance writer:

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