Brad Johnson (left) has been a triathlete for decades and his son Owen is on the South Carolina Swim Club Team. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Swimming for a cause

 Mount Pleasant entrepreneur Brad Johnson had a headache in May 2003 that wouldn’t go away. By October of that year, he completed treatment for stage four head and neck cancer at just 27 years old. 

Next week, Johnson will celebrate surviving cancer for 20 years in a unique way — by taking to the waves off the shore of Kiawah Island in an open water swim event to raise money for a local cancer center. 

“Twenty-seven is not a normal age to sort of deal with end-of-life issues — but, you know, the reality is none of us know what is going to happen,” Johnson told the Charleston City Paper. “It became very clear that you can’t take anything with you to whatever you believe is coming after this life. The things you leave behind are the relationships and what people remember of you. That was probably the biggest impact on me.”

This year’s swim is extra special, too. Johnson will swim for the first time as half of a dynamic duo with his 13-year-old son Owen in the Swim Across America (SAA) Charleston-Kiawah Open Water Swim on June 10. Swimmers can participate in the half-mile or 1.5-mile swim options. 

June 10 marks the sixth annual SAA Charleston-Kiawah Open Water Swim. | Photo courtesy Swim Across America

The father-son team aims to raise $20,000 this year for SAA and complete the 1.5-mile swim. Johnson has been serving as director of this local chapter of SAA since its inaugural event in 2018 — and he said he looks forward to switching gears and hitting the water instead. 

SAA, founded in 1987, raises awareness and funds for cancer research, prevention and treatment through community events such as open water or pool swims. It works with thousands of volunteers each year as well as past and current Olympians. 

Photo courtesy Swim Across America

Since the organization’s first open water event in the Long Island Sound 36 years ago, two dozen communities in the United States hold annual swimming events to benefit various innovative cancer patient and research programs. 

“Swim Across America as a national organization has granted over $100 million to cancer research,” Johnson said. “The special thing about the SAA model is each one of the events is connected with a local cancer center. So everything we raise at our event here in Charleston, goes to a cancer center here in Charleston.”

Local funds go to the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Hollings Cancer Center, one of 71 designated National Cancer Institutes in America and the only one in South Carolina.

Hollings Cancer Center bolsters research

Over the past five years, the local Swim Across America chapter has raised more than $250,000 for the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. 

Jonnson said SAA’s fundraising model is unique because it benefits novel cancer research projects that shape how the medical industrial complex views, treats and prevents various cancers. Up-and-coming researchers often have a difficult time receiving federal funding, Johnson said, and SAA’s scientific committee works with the Hollings center and other cancer centers to identify investigative projects and help with seed funding to propel clinical trials and data collection. 

“Immunotherapy is big right now,” Johnson said, “and when it [first surfaced], people thought it was crazy [to use] the immune system to fight cancer. Swim Across America is one of the first organizations to invest and support [immunotherapy] research. There are some very big drugs out there making a huge impact on people’s lives that actually credit the funding of Swim Across America.”


Seed funding is “critical for somebody who is starting out their career with their own laboratory and trying to launch their research program,” said Dr. Denis Guttridge, associate director of translational sciences at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. He said SAA is an integral avenue through which Hollings can financially equip the researchers it recruits to work on specific areas of cancer. 

“These seed funds go a long way in accelerating careers and getting researchers the money that they need to generate data [they can] then use to apply for much bigger grants in the million-dollar range from the National Institutes of Health or other national funding agencies.”

One family’s SAA story

Thirteen-year-old Owen Johnson has completed the local SAA open swim twice so far, and looks forward to swimming with his dad this year for the first time. 

“It’s really fun, especially with the open water — I don’t get to do that much,” Owen told the City Paper. “I love to see all the Olympians that are there and maybe get the chance to swim with one.”

Brad Johnson said he was working for a biotech sales company and had just proposed to his wife Tami when he first experienced symptoms living in San Diego.

“No one really thought it was anything serious except for me, and it progressed rapidly,” he said.

“It was a very aggressive form of head and neck cancer, which is extremely rare in young people. The type of cancer I had really only shows up with any frequency in elderly people in Southeast Asia. Doctors weren’t aware of any successful treatment protocols [in the early 2000s].”

He quickly started treatment under Dr. Marshall Posner with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Dr. Posner was researching aggressive forms of head and neck cancer that show up in young people with zero risk factors, Johnson said.

The treatments were very intense, he said, moving from chemotherapy into a combination of chemotherapy and radiation then into boost radiation, which are twice-daily radiation treatments. 

“It all happened so quickly — I went from being a healthy 27-year-old to being in a hospital bed unable to get myself to the bathroom.” He said Posner described his approach as, “We’re going to beat you within an inch of your life to save it.” 

And indeed his life was saved. 

“Triathlons were a big part of my survivorship,” Johnson said. “I celebrated one year out of cancer treatments by doing my first triathlon [in 2004]. And then it’s been a part of my life ever since.”

Johnson and his family moved to Charleston in 2015 from Quebec, where his wife was born. He founded his endurance coaching business Axes Performance Coaching that same year. 

Owen Johnson launched a GoFundMe page in 2020 that raised about $2,000 for SAA and Hollings Research Center in honor of his dad’s battle with cancer and his work for the organization. 

“For him to take the initiative that he did almost three years ago and recognize the importance of that to me as a gift — I just don’t know what more I could have asked for. To be able to swim together this year, it’s going to be awesome.

“Owen is in way better shape than me right now,” Brad Johnson said laughing. “I’m sure he’s going to be swimming circles around me the whole time — that’s kind of our strategy.”

To participate in or donate to the Charleston-Kiawah SAA fundraising event, visit Lowvelo, a bicycle event that also benefits Hollings Cancer Center, takes place Nov. 4. Visit for details.

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