CLEARWATER BEACH — Jim Sirignano considers himself a pretty good athlete. A former college football player, he's the strong, confident type, always ready for any kind of physical challenge.
But when it comes to mental toughness, he said he's a lightweight compared to his brother Paul, who died 2 ½ years ago after a long battle with cancer.
"He had such courage and determination," Jim, 50, said. "He never gave up."
Sirignano often wondered what went through his brother's mind as he endured treatment after treatment.
"Even with a good support system, when you have cancer, you're the one who has to deal with it day after day. He must have felt pretty alone."
Sirignano wished he could have shared his brother's burden. But when a friend told him about an open-water swim to raise money for cancer research, he knew he'd found something he could do.
"I never really swam before and thought it would be an incredible challenge for me personally," said Sirignano, who lives in Clearwater. "As it turned out, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life."
The concept was simple. Each swimmer pledges to raise a specified amount for a designated charity. Then all of them pile into a boat, get dropped off in the middle of the ocean and swim for shore.
"It was cold, dark and pretty lonely out there," he said of that first swim off Long Island a decade ago. "But then it hit me — this is what it must feel like when you are a cancer patient, scared and lonely, wondering if you're going to make it."
Sirignano drew strength from those around him. He emerged from the water feeling glad to have been a part of something big.
"That was my first Swim Across America event," he said. "I have done one every year since."
The national, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment now holds events in more than a dozen cities, including Clearwater.
Since the first swim off Nantucket Island in 1987, Swim Across America has raised more than $45 million for charity. Last year's inaugural Clearwater event raised more than $100,000 for the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, and this year organizers hope to double that amount.
"It's a pretty simple formula," said Sirignano, who helped bring the swim to the Tampa Bay area. "Participants who are 18 years or older are asked to raise a minimum of $500, and those younger than 18 are asked to pledge $250."
Swimmers have three distances to choose from: half-mile, 1-mile and the new "Ironman" distance of 2.4 miles. Participants can swim as individuals or as part of a team in honor of friends and loved ones who have fought, or who are fighting, cancer.
The race starts at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, so you'd better get going, either to swim or to cheer on the swimmers.
"If you haven't signed up, you can still come out on race day," said Joseph Gallina, a spokesman for the swim. "Walkups are welcome."