Maya Merhige may only be 15 years old, but she has already accomplished numerous daring feats that most adults never will – including becoming one of the youngest swimmers to ever swim around the island of Manhattan! Maya completed the 20 Bridges Swim on July 16th in eight hours and. 43 minutes and swam the challenging swim to raise money for cancer research for the nonprofit Swim Across America. Only two other 15-year-olds have successfully completed the 20 Bridges Swim prior to Maya’s accomplishment. This is her eighth major marathon swim.
- Last January, Maya became the youngest swimmer in the world to successfully swim the grueling Kaiwi Molokai Channel, between the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai and Oahu, which she completed in 27 hrs and 33 mins (she also holds a record for the longest duration, which she had not anticipated!).
- She is the youngest woman to swim the 21-mile length, 12-mile width, and 10.8-mile Vikingsholm courses of Lake Tahoe, earning her the Tahoe Triple Crown.
- She is the youngest woman to complete the 21-mile Catalina Channel between Catalina Island and Los Angeles.
- She is the youngest woman to complete the Angel Island and the Three Rocks courses in the San Francisco Bay.
While the Berkeley, California teen swims because she loves the sport, she also continually challenges herself to make waves to fight cancer and raise funds for Swim Across America.
“I swim for each and every single person that has ever been touched by cancer. Whether it’s for a patient, a doctor, a family member, or a friend, I swim for them all,” said Maya Merhige. “Cancer is one of the most devastating things to go through, and I swim to honor all of those who use all of their strength to fight this disease. Although I swim for all of them, there is one specific friend whose spirit especially fuels me. Sam Hallward, a family friend of mine, passed away from brain cancer (DIPG) in December 2022 at the age of 12. He was one of the most outgoing and adventurous kids I knew, and I just know that he would have loved to be in all of the awesome places that I get to go while swimming.”
Maya’s passion for swimming and ending cancer is being directed specifically toward supporting pediatric cancer research. Through swimming, she has raised more than $60,000 for Swim Across America and swims each year in her local Swim Across America San Francisco open water swim, which swims under the Golden Gate Bridge and raises funds for cancer research and patient care at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and USCF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco Survivors of Childhood Cancer Program.
“This year marks the eighth year I’ve been swimming and raising money for Swim Across America,” said Maya. “I originally started swimming to support my dear friend Susan Helmrich, with Team Susan Survives. Susan is an amazing three-time cancer survivor.”
Maya’s ultra marathon swims are part of her quest to complete the Triple Crown, which is a series of three of the most challenging open water channel swims throughout the world, including the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the swim around Manhattan Island. With Catalina already completed, and the English Channel scheduled for next year, Maya is well on her way to achieving this.
The 20 Bridges Swim is the longest swim at 28.5-miles (48.5-kilometer). The swim is traditionally completed counter-clockwise. It’s a full loop, with an in-water start and finish. The course includes 20 bridges of Manhattan and views of the Empire State Building, the Freedom Tower, United Nations, Randall’s Island and Inwood Hill Park. The swim travels through three rivers, which are actually all tidal straits or estuaries. The East River has ripping-fast tides that shoot the swimmers under the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and other spans as they swim past Brooklyn and Queens. The Harlem River is quite mellow by comparison with a slower current and calmer waters. Swimmers also swim the mighty Hudson River, known for its choppy water, and swim under the magnificent George Washington Bridge.
“I’ve loved swimming for a really long time,” noted Maya. “Swimming is something that I would do even if I weren’t raising funds. Being able to raise money for something that is extremely important to me and close to my heart by just continuing with something I love is the perfect situation. Open water swimming is a really challenging sport, and it reminds me every day that regardless of how challenging something might be for me, it’s nothing compared to what cancer patients face. It has really helped me put things into perspective.”
Maya also had her own health scare earlier this year. Just this last March, after what should have been a very minor ski accident, Maya started experiencing excruciating abdominal pain. After a CT scan, doctors found a large tumor on Maya’s pancreas.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Maya. “The grapefruit-size tumor was benign and with the exception of a massive scar across my stomach, I will be okay. This brief, but terrifying experience, gave me and my family a small taste of what others go through when confronted with a terrifying medical situation. It gave me even greater respect for what people with cancer experience, and made me even more committed to this effort.”
Swim Across America was founded in 1987 with its first open water event in Long Island Sound. Since that time, the nonprofit organization has raised more than $100 million to fight cancer. In its 36 years of “making waves to fight cancer,” more than 100,000 swimmers and 150 Olympians have swum the circumference of the earth three times, uniting a movement to fight cancer that has created a groundswell of support spanning all generations. Today, more than 24 communities hold open water swims and charity pool swims each year, from Nantucket to under the Golden Gate Bridge, which support innovative cancer research, detection and patient programs.
Swim Across America’s funding of clinical trials for patients helped contribute to four FDA approved life-saving immunotherapy cancer treatments: Yervoy, Opdivo, Tecentriq and Keytruda. In June of last year, a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering was published in The New England Journal of Medicine that showed a 100 percent success rate in treating patients in a phase 2 clinical trial for advanced rectal cancer with dostarlimab, an immunotherapy treatment produced by GlaxoSmithKline. The clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering was funded by early-stage grant funding from Swim Across America. More than 60 scientific grants are funded each year and there are now ten dedicated Swim Across America Labs at major institutions including: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, John Hopkins Medicine Baltimore, Rush University Medical Center Chicago, Baylor Scott & White Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center New York, Infusion Center at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and San Francisco, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, The Swim Across America Pediatric Research Lab at Columbia University Medical Center New York, and at Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.
To follow Maya’s progress or support her cause, visit swimacrossamerica.org/maya.
Swim Across America, Inc. (SAA) is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment through swimming-related events. With the help of hundreds of volunteers nationwide and past and current Olympians, Swim Across America is helping find a cure for cancer through athleticism, community outreach and direct service. To learn more visit swimacrossamerica.org or follow on Facebook @SwimAcrossAmerica or on Instagram or Twitter @SAASwim.