Darien-created Swim Across America will raise money for Stamford cancer center research Saturday

DARIEN — This Saturday, hundreds of swimmers, boaters and kayakers will take off into the waters of the Long Island Sound hoping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a cancer research organization in Stamford.

The occasion marks the 35th year of Swim Across America, a nationwide event that has its roots in Darien.

Inspired by his college roomate’s battle with bone cancer as a child, Darien resident Matt Vossler founded the organization in 1987 as a team relay charity swim across Long Island Sound.

The concept was picked up by 24 cities nationwide from Boston to San Francisco, and now sends hundreds of swimmers into open waters annually as they attempt to raise money for cancer research.

“We decided that we wanted to do something very unique and not do what you know, a 10K or a golf tournament,” Vossler said. “Here we are 35 years later.”

Vossler’s idea for the fundraiser came after he and two friends attempted an eight-month run across the United States, from Boston to Los Angeles, to raise $1 million for cancer research shortly after they graduated from college in 1984.

The experience, Vossler said, inspired the idea of an annual event that would generate money to fund innovative treatments for cancer, beyond surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Money raised during this weekend’s event will benefit Stamford-based research center Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy by providing cancer gene therapy grants. The Fairfield County chapter of Swim Across America has raised $4.7 million so far for the organization, which is used to fund research fellows who are studying new cancer therapies.

Last year’s Fairfield County race raised more than $300,000 for the Stamford nonprofit. This is the 16th year the Fairfield County race will be held.

“They go out and identify some of the best and the most promising physician-scientists in the country, and they get behind their research,” Vossler said. “So this is really immediate money, it goes directly to the budgets, to the research programs of these rockstar cancer researchers, and it funds programs that would not be funded by any other type of foundation — because they are so novel and unique.”

Nationally, Swim Across America has raised nearly $120 million for research into immunotherapy and patient programs.

Participants will kick off on Saturday at the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy headquarters, 96 Cummings Point Road.

Swimmers are invited to participate in three different swim distances — a half-mile, 1.5-mile, and 3-mile swim.

Anyone interested in participating can register to swim, boat, volunteer or donate at swimacrossamerica.org/fc.