Swim Across the Sound, a quarter century later

In 1987, a half-dozen friends looking for a physical challenge set forth to swim across Long Island Sound.

A quarter century later, Swim Across the Sound has launched 45 programs and affected the lives of thousands of cancer patients and their families in Connecticut.

“It went so much further than we ever thought it would,” said Ronald J. Bianchi of Trumbull, president of the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation since its founding in 1987 and corporate senior vice president of St. Vincent’s Health Services in Bridgeport.

The first Swim Across the Sound involved Jeff Keith, who had run across America on a prosthetic leg, and his friends, Bianchi recalled.

“It was really just a physical challenge by a group of young students out of BC,” he said. “They had graduated, wanted to be together again.”

Six swimmers and two boats set out from Long Island. As an aircraft circled overhead reporting on the events, one boat was swamped by a splash from the other, larger boat, and sank.

“They didn’t know where we stood with injuries or loss of life,” Bianchi said.

But when the swimmers reached Bridgeport, “Thousands of people were there.”

Ronald J. Bianchi

Ronald J. Bianchi

“From that beginning, we did not have a vision where we could go to be beneficial,” Bianchi said. “We grew slowly for a couple years.”

The Swim Across the Sound had enough money for St. Vincent’s to purchase a mobile mammography van, providing critical cancer screening services to women with limited access to health care.

“That was a critical step in the growth of the Swim,” Bianchi said. “We found a need no one had addressed.”

The St. Vincent’s Swim Across the Sound Mobile Mammography Van became a readily visible testament to the potential accomplishments of the test of heart and athletic prowess. More people wanted to make a splash.

“As people see growth and the impact you’re making on people, and people want to be part of it,” Bianchi said.

Then change came to Swim Across the Sound. Some people wanted money to go to research, while others wanted to fund programs for those with cancer and their families. There was a split Bianchi called amicable, and the original group formed Swim Across America, which morphed into the Connecticut Challenge bicycle ride.

“We felt we couldn’t make an impact on research, but could make a huge difference in the lives of people,” Bianchi said.

“When they left,” he added, “I wasn’t sure we’d survive.”

Swim Across the Sound went in a new direction. It became a stop among the other contests for the world championship of long-distance swimming. Bianchi recalls flying to one of the tour stops in Canada, talking to elite swimmers, and five weeks later holding the marathon on Long Island Sound.

“The people in Bridgeport and in Long Island, primarily in Bridgeport and Fairfield County, really were very curious to see the swimmers who came from throughout the world, all continents, and an awful lot of people came to cheer them on,” Bianchi said.

But watching those who became celebrities brought some who wanted to step up to the challenge.

“A volunteer, Dave Parcells, said one time he’d like to participate in the swim,” Bianchi said. “I said your score can’t be counted, and if you can’t finish we’ll take you in by boat.”

Not only did Parcells finish, Bianchi said: He beat two of the swimmers competing for the world championship.

“He convinced me to go back to amateur swimmers,” Bianchi said. “It was such an exhilarating thrill to do this.”

On July 28, more than 200 swimmers accompanied by a fleet of 110 boats will launch from Danford’s Marina in Port Jefferson, N.Y., at 8:30 a.m. on a 15.5-mile journey across the Sound to Captain’s Cove in Bridgeport.

According to a press release, this year’s field is composed of some 17 solo swimmers, 40 relay teams of four to six swimmers and five two-person relays. In addition to the “Traditional” and University Challenge” team relays, Swim Across the Sound is introducing a new non-wetsuit category called “Classic”: all the team members in this category must wear lycra-type suits only.

During relays, a new swimmer must enter the water from the boat and swim past the swimmer being replaced before that swimmer can leave the water.

Each relay team is required to raise a minimum of $7,500, two-person relays are required to raise a minimum of $3,500, and solo swimmers a minimum of $1,500.

Anyone may enter, as long as they survive the credentialing process.

“We opened the door to a number of people who have wanted to do this,” Bianchi said. “The number is pretty much at the max.”

One person will not be back after this year’s Swim Across the Sound. After 25 of the events, and 37 years at St. Vincent’s, Bianchi is retiring Aug. 2.

“I’m looking forward to this swimming event,” he said. “It’s special to me, the most special ever.”

Swim Across the Sound has grown from a single marathon race in 1987, raising $5,000, to a year-long series of events which, in 2011, raised $2.6 million and helped 20,000 people through more than 35 programs.

In his dual role at St. Vincent’s, Bianchi has overseen the growth of the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation and has been responsible for all external activities of St. Vincent’s including marketing, community relations, patient relations, legislative activities, and institutional networking, according to a press release.

The foundation reports an endowment in excess of $70 million, and just completed a capital campaign, which has raised $60 million in support of a $145-million expansion project, which includes the Elizabeth M. Pfriem Swim Center for Cancer Care, opened in 2010, and the Michael J. Daly Center for Emergency and Trauma Care, completed in 2011.

“We don’t take any administrative costs from the money raised,” Bianchi said. “That’s subsidized by the foundation. Whatever we raise we spend on people in the area.”

In his 37-year career at St. Vincent’s, Bianchi has raised more than $350 million to support numerous projects and needs.

As president of the St. Vincent’s Foundation, Bianchi has served as chairman of the Connecticut Hospital Development Association, and worked for many years in the Ascension Health Council of Foundations.

In his other role as corporate senior vice president of St. Vincent’s Health Services, Bianchi created two statewide provider networks to partner with managed care companies to deal with managed care and Medicaid issues. He is a past board chairman of the United Way of Eastern Fairfield County and a past board member of the Greater Bridgeport Regional Business Council. He has also led coalitions regarding health and public policy on the local, state, and federal level, and overseen all medical center external activities.

Bianchi serves on the Connecticut Hospital Association’s Council of Government and was chairman of the Daughter of Charity National Public Policy Committee.

He and his wife Lynnette have been married for 44 years and reside in Trumbull.

Swim Across the Sound has helped provide low- or no-cost cancer education, screening and prevention programs for the uninsured and underinsured. It also helps cancer patients on a case-by-case basis with specific needs, such as the purchase of wigs and prostheses, medication assistance, free transportation to treatments and appointments, day-care scholarships, support groups and more.

In addition to the marathon swim, money is raised through events such as the Breast Cancer Luncheon, Walk/Run for Cancer and Prostate Cancer Celebrity Dinner.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, the programs we’ve established, and the way it’s helped people,” Bianchi said. “I’m hopeful it will be here for many more years, I’m hopeful the people who follow have the same passion those of us who started it have.”

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