Fourteen is the number for Marietta mom Vicki Bunke, who is participating in 14 Swim Across America events across the country this year in memory of her 14-year-old daughter Grace, who died of an aggressive form of bone cancer in 2018.
“It’s usually parents who leave legacies for our children,” said Bunke, who has been traveling across the country since May to swim in the national charity swims to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
Swim Across America – Atlanta takes place at Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Saturday, October 2. Organizers anticipate more than 400 participants. Nearly a dozen Olympians are expected to swim the open-water event and participate in an autograph clinic for registered swimmers and Olympians, land volunteers and spectators. Swimmers can swim individually or as part of a team and can choose from half-mile, 1-mile, and 5K distances.
“Grace left a legacy for us. She was the No. 1 fundraiser for pediatric research with Swim Across America before she passed away, and if she were here today, she would be swimming to fight this awful disease for others. It’s Grace’s spirit that brings us all together for this cause.”
Bunke began her quest on Mothers’ Day weekend in Tampa. Since then, she’s traveled across the country to Seattle and will swim in one of the final Swim across America events on Saturday, October 2, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
At each event, Bunke has swum a mile. “I had to train before I started, because I wasn’t much of a swimmer and I was in 52-year-old mom shape,” said Bunke, “I picked the 1-mile distance, because if Grace were here, she’d tell me, ‘Mom, why do this if you’re not going to swim at least one mile?’ ”
Bunke has been joined on some of her open-water swims by her younger daughter Caroline, now 16, as well as Grace’s oncologist Dr. Karen Wasilewski-Masker, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“It means so much to me to be able to do this, especially here on Lake Lanier where our family would come to boat,” she said. “Both Caroline and Dr. Wasilewski-Masker are planning to be at Lake Lanier.”
An avid runner, Grace Bunke was diagnosed at age 11 and battled osteosarcoma for nearly four years, undergoing treatment including a partial leg amputation where the lower half of her leg was reattached backward (rotationplasty) and three lung operations. While recuperating, swimming found her.
She quickly excelled at swimming, making her varsity high school swim team and Grace earned her national cap for the U.S. Paralympic team in 2017. She took to open water swimming and participated in the Swim Across America – Atlanta open-water charity swim near her home the fall of 2017. She battled cancer with the trademark name given to her by others “Amazing Grace.”
Grace was in the hospital when her high school team competed in what would have been her last swim meet in 2018, the Georgia Age Group State Championship. Olympian Amanda Weir swam at the meet for Grace. To honor Grace, her swim team brought umbrellas that paid homage to a motto Grace believed: prayer is asking for rain, faith is bringing the umbrella.
The umbrellas became a symbol for Grace’s inner strength. It also became an overriding image in a song written in her honor by Zac Brown Band member John Driscoll Hopkins, a family friend.
Hopkins’ song is featured in a 6-part documentary series, Wavemakers,” on the Discovery Life channel that tells the story of Swim Across America. Grace’s journey through cancer and her mom’s participation in this year’s Swim Across America events are highlighted in Episodes 1 and 2. The documentary aired this summer.
A portion of the proceeds from downloads of the song are being donated to Swim Across America – Atlanta. Funds raised from the song and those from the Lake Lanier event will stay local.
The event has taken place at Lanier for the past nine years. This year it is being hosted at Lake Lanier Olympic Park for the first time.
Photos: courtesy Swim Across America – Atlanta