A History of the Swim for Life, a.k.a. “Donor Party Crossing”

May 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Swim for Life, 2008

By Scott Leopold, Founder of Swim for Life Across Lake Washington.

On Aug. 18, 2010, there will be 400 swimmers, 100 kayakers and dozens of small power craft on Lake Washington raising $50,000 for bone marrow registration. Swim for Life has come a long way since I started it 13 years ago by swimming solo across Lake Washington.

My inspiration to start the Swim for Life came from a very good friend, Steve, who lost a son to leukemia at the age of three. Steve is one of my heroes: He’s on Puget Sound Blood Center’s Tree of Life, which means he has given 100 or more donations. I met Steve in 1996. In 1998 I decided to drum up a little excitement by encouraging the public to donate blood at Puget Sound Blood Center. That’s when I swam solo – guided only by my friend Pat in a very small kayak – from Medina beach to the UW Husky Stadium – almost four miles.

Pat Anderson, Lori Wolfe, Scott Leopold First Swim for Life, Sep. 19, 1998

After three years of this grueling event I decided to make it more attractive: It’s hard to get people excited about a four-mile swim, so I chose Madison Beach 2.5-miles to the northwest. It was important to me that Swim for Life (initially dubbed “The Donor Crossing”) to maintain an important bragging right: a complete open-water swim all the way across the lake, and I don’t mean across some skinny portion, like the north end of the lake; I wanted something that was really worth writing home about.

Bob Forgrave joined me in 1999. Things really started to gel in 2001 when a couple dozen swimmers signed on. Now it was more than just a bunch of us Microsofties. I rented canoes from the UW Waterfront Activities Center haul them over in a 15 foot moving van. Then in 2003 I towed a dozen canoes from the UW to Medina, swamping several of them in the process. By the time we hit the water in Medina I was already exhausted.

In 2004, I decided to turn Swim for Life into a fundraiser for Puget Sound Blood Center. Microsoft Employee Jason Lucas joined us (actually, his whole family did!) by swimming with us that year. He has been one of our leading boat safety captains ever since. We had about 66 swimmers and raised about $12,000. In 2005 we raised a bit more.

Swim for Life in August 2009 at Medina Beach

In 2007 Bob’s “team approach” to the Swim for Life won me over and it was a fantastic decision: We expected about 75 swimmers; 150 showed up! We ran out of t-shirts, schwag bags, even registration forms. What a great problem to have.

2007 was a milestone for the swim because Puget Sound Blood Center officially began a partnership with the Swim for Life, and because Karl Langlois, who heads Seattle Region 10 Patrol and Rescue, joined us. Karl is a special asset to the swim because his network has gained the support of dozens of spotter/patrol boats and several USCG auxiliary vessels. Karl made – out of his own pocket – over a hundred bright orange safety flags that each paddler will carry to quickly summon a nearby speedboat in case a swimmer needs attention.  Karl even writes an official NOTICE TO MARINERS, which warns boaters and seaplanes to steer clear of our event.  Last year, one of Karl’s USCG auxiliary officers waved off a seaplane that was coming in to land:  It was carrying a rather well-known software company executive.  Today, our “safety armada” of speedboats and USCG auxiliary vessels boasts trauma kits, defibrillators, and two paramedics.

Come Join Us!

One Hundred and Fifty swimmers raised $20,000 in 2007, 260 swimmers raised $25,000 in 2008, and 322 swimmers raised $29,000 last year. In 2007 we had a 12-year-old boy swim the entire 2.5 miles, and in 2008 his 10-year-old buddy joined us. It boggles my mind.

I believe in three things: Put your money where your mouth is, lead by example and be the change you want to see in the world. I urge you to contact your friends and save lives by forming a swim team for Aug. 18 (visit http://www.psbc.org/news_archive/swim2010.htm). I’m living proof that one man really can change the world.

I wish Pat were here to see what he helped me build.