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Ashlin Cannella leads the way for cancer research at Swim Across America

The Academy of the Holy Names seventh-grader is taking part in Saturday’s open water swim to honor older sister Cailin Cannella, who died from cancer two years ago.

Ashlin Cannella admits to being nervous for Saturday’s Swim Across America.

The Academy of the Holy Names seventh-grader, known more for finishing 100-yard butterfly and 200 individual medley races with a flourish, will surge to the front when the open water swimmers start at North Shore Park.

That strategy was by design.

Two weeks ago, organizers asked Cannella to not only participate but also to lead the pack.

“It’s a little scary, but this is something that’s special and is a big honor,” Cannella said.

Cannella is swimming as a tribute to older sister, Cailin, who died in September 2017 after a year-long bout with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that usually affects children, often around the knee. She was 14.

Related: RELATED: Late Holy Names swimmer Cailin Cannella was a fighter until the end

The Tampa Bay event of the Swim Across America, now in its eighth year, welcomes swimmers of all ages and skill levels. Proceeds go to research and other programs for pediatric cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins All-Children’s Hospital.

This is the second open water swim event for Ashlin, the last one coming more than a year ago as another cancer fundraiser.

“It’s not something I’m used to doing,” Ashlin said. “That’s what makes me a little nervous. But I will have another teammate and some other friends and swimmers I know who will be doing this one. At least I won’t be all alone.”

Normally, Ashlin spends Saturdays practicing with her Academy Aquatic Club team. She swims six days a week, usually for two-to-three hours each session.

Ashlin has done that for years. She bonded with her sister through the sport.

Calin was nationally ranked in her age group and competed with Academy of the Holy Names’ varsity team while still in middle school.

In September 2016, Cailin complained of knee problems. She went through physical therapy, but the pain remained.

An MRI exam revealed the cancer, which spread to her lungs. That did not deter Cailin, who vowed to become a competitive swimmer again.

Related: RELATED: Pool promise motivates Holy Names swimmer after cancer diagnosis

After lengthy stays in the hospital, either for surgery or exhaustive bouts of chemotherapy, Cailin kept finding the wherewithal to return to the pool.

Her resolve became the inspiration for a hashtag adopted by the school’s swim program: #CailinStrong.

Academy of the Holy Names continues to honor Cailin with a memorial plaque near the front the pool on campus.

“At first, I wondered how difficult it would be mentally for Ashlin to keep swimming with her sister gone,” said their mother, Lisa. “But being in the water helps Ashlin feel connected to Cailin. It also helps to keep her busy and focused and not dwell on any negative thoughts.”

Ashlin does more than just swim. As a seventh-grader, she advanced to the finals of the 200 IM and made the consolation finals of the 100 fly at the Class 2A state meet, all while competing against much older swimmers. For years, she has been one of the top performers at the FL Age Group Championships (FLAGS).

Being the top-ranked swimmer in her group was not what prompted the Swim Across America organizers to tab Ashlin as the lead swimmer.

It simply was another chance for Ashlin to pay homage to her sister.

“I want to raise awareness for cancer as much as possible,” Ashlin said. “Doing open water swims is one way, and I would like to do more of them.”