With his arm muscles straining and his legs burning, the swimmer feels like he has no strength left.
There comes a moment during Sawyer Hansen’s yearly swim for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® when the 11-year-old from St. Petersburg, Florida, wants nothing more than to stop.
“It’s really hard once I get to that 30-minute mark,” said Sawyer, who’s been swimming competitively since he was very young.
He’s here at the North Shore Aquatic Complex to complete his Sawyer Swims for St. Jude fundraiser, just as he’s done for the past seven years. Sawyer’s coach gives him a lane to himself. The countdown clock starts, and he swims as many freestyle laps as he can for one hour.
“It’s not fun staring at a black line at the bottom of the pool for an hour, grinding it out is not that fun,” said his mom, Rebecca Hansen.
He could take a break. He could stop if he wanted to. No one would blame him because he’s already done so much. Sawyer has raised more than $70,000 for St. Jude since he saw that commercial on TV that changed his life.
But he won’t stop, even when it’s hard.
Sawyer keeps swimming for St. Jude kids.
An equal chance
Sawyer was sitting on the edge of his parents’ bed one night when a St. Jude commercial came on TV. A little bald child appeared on the screen. The announcer explained that the child was sick, that St. Jude needed help.
Sawyer looked alarmed. He turned to his parents.
It was 2016, and he was only 5 years old.
“Do kids really die from cancer?” he asked.
His parents didn’t respond for a moment, and finally his mom spoke.
“I hated giving him the answer, but we believe in being pretty darn honest with our kids,” said Rebecca.
She told him “Yes.”
He was quiet, but a couple days later, he asked more questions.
Sawyer didn’t think that cancer seemed fair. So, with the guidance of his parents, he created a fundraiser for St. Jude based on his talent for swimming.
“Those kids, they deserve a life like I have,” said Sawyer, “and that's what just sparked me to do this. I just believe that everyone deserves an equal chance.”
Impressed by Sawyer’s vision but feeling a little daunted, his parents had to decide how involved they wanted to be.
“I’m thinking he’s only 5 years old. How are we going to tackle this?” said Rebecca. “And shouldn’t you be thinking of things a little less serious? But we had to embrace it, and how could we make this our mission?”
His parents created a St. Jude fundraising page for Sawyer and shared it through social networks. The Sawyer Swims for St. Jude fundraiser was born.
“It started off as, ‘I want to raise $500 and swim 100 lengths of the pool,’” said Sawyer’s dad, Jay. “And he ended up that year at $3,400 and swimming 100 lengths. As a 5-year-old.”
This image – of a little boy on his solo mission to help other kids – made others in the community want to rally behind him. Even strangers donated.
“We were blown away,” said Rebecca.
Sawyer’s family and friends stand by the pool, cheering him on and shaking posterboards with words of encouragement. He can hear them in short bursts when he comes up for air.
Some of them windmill their arms in overhead rotations, as though swimming his laps for him.
He can’t see them, but knowing they’re there gives him strength.
What happens when a child decides to make a splash?
A ripple effect, of course.
When a retired local judge learned about Sawyer’s fundraiser in 2019, the 88-year-old man felt inspired. He challenged Sawyer, then 7, to a swim-off for St. Jude. “The Judge and the Juvenile,” they billed the one-time matchup.
The judge knew the 81-year age difference would create a media buzz.
It did, Sawyer won the challenge, and the kids at St. Jude benefited.
His three siblings can’t wait to hype Sawyer’s swim every year.
“They’re telling their teachers. They’re telling their friends. They’re his biggest cheerleaders,” said Rebecca, who calls Sawyer’s swimming event “our family mission at this point.”
Last year when Sawyer was assigned to do his fifth-grade presentation on a cause important to him, he chose St. Jude. His classmates seemed amazed that he’d already done so much.
“The other kiddos were like, ‘How can we do something big like this?’ You could just see their eyes light up thinking, ‘Wow, this is really impressive,’” said Rebecca.
Some of them will go on to help St. Jude, she said, or maybe their interests will lead them to support another cause.
Either way, the good in the world increases.
They don’t stop
Sawyer’s limbs feel incredibly heavy at the halfway mark. He’s coming up for breath with every stroke.
A swimmer wouldn’t normally breathe with every stroke during a race, especially heading into a turn. But nobody races for 60 minutes. The typical race is less than two.
This moment of struggle defines him.
Sawyer trains with two-time Olympic medalist Bobby Finke for moments like this one.
“The greatest swimmers are always looking for more to accomplish,” said Finke. “They don't stop at one goal but keep setting higher standards for themselves.”
He’s sees this drive in Sawyer.
Sawyer set a goal to raise $15,000 for St. Jude this year and wound up raising more than $18,000.
He’s promised to swim at least 5,200 yards during this year’s Sawyer Swims for St. Jude event, not really knowing if he has it in him.
“I’ve had the honor of watching Sawyer grow up and always chasing times and in this case, chasing charity for St. Jude,” said Finke. “It is clear to me and the people around Sawyer that he doesn't just swim for himself but also for his family and community around him.”
Sawyer wants to attend the University of Michigan someday and become an Olympic champion, just like Finke. Beyond that, he wants to be a doctor, maybe even at St. Jude.
“While we were doing research, and he was putting together his [school] project, we stumbled upon the fact that there are residencies at St. Jude,” said Rebecca.
“How cool would it be to see this come full circle? How wild?”
They made it through
When things seem hardest during his swim for St. Jude, Sawyer sees a vision of the children.
He’s swimming for that child he may never meet. The kid on the St. Jude commercial. And all the kids at St. Jude.
“Every single time, every single lap, I’m saying to myself, ‘Those kids are hurting even more, and they have to do that every day,’” said Sawyer.
They help propel the 11-year-old past exhaustion, and past any doubts he might have in himself.
He’s well past the halfway mark now, and his goal feels so close.
His arms arc into the water, his legs flutter behind him, his breaths are strong and rhythmic now. Determined, like the chug of the locomotive in the children’s book.
I think I can, I think I can…
When Sawyer’s strength of body fails, he reaches into a place inside himself that we hope all our children will have if we raise them right.
It’s not just his conditioning that kicks in. It’s his character.
“I know that I could be a good swimmer,” said Sawyer, “but I want to be a great person.”
For Sawyer, being a great person is an active verb – it’s something you do and keep doing.
The timer bell rings, and his race is done for another year. He swam 5,285 yards in one hour.
“In my head I'm like, that's like a cancer patient ringing the bell,” said Sawyer. “That's like saying they made it through. They finished. And it really means a lot to me.”