A Lasting Legacy

Through Swim Across America, Mary Haffner Holloway keeps late brother’s spirit alive by participating in the event he loved — all while supporting cancer research at Rush
Mary Haffner Holloway lifts her arms in celebration after participating in Swim Across America's Chicago Open Water Swim.

When Mary Haffner Holloway’s brother Russ Haffner first joined Swim Across America’s Chicago Open Water Swim 29 years ago, she never imagined how much the event would come to mean to her.

Russ was an endurance swimmer who for years brought his athleticism and do-good spirit to Swim Across America, or SAA, an annual swim in Lake Michigan that raises funds for cancer research and leading-edge patient care at Rush. As a professional chef, he also organized the food and beverages for the after-swim party.

Mary was his biggest fan.

“I started riding my bike down the lakefront to see him swim, and I would scream ‘Go, Russ!’ every time his arm was raised as he swam,” she recalled. “I don’t know how, but somehow he heard me every time, and he’d give me a wave on each stroke.”

When Russ died a few months after a lymphoma diagnosis in 2011, SAA organizers wanted to ensure his significant contributions were etched into the event’s history and future. They established Team Russ, allowing participants to swim together in Russ’ honor, and the Russ Haffner Award — won in recent years by Alyse Mauro Mason, Cathi McNamara and Stephen Schlegel.

“I felt so good that people cared so much about him and adored him,” Mary said. “Russ was extremely shy, but the swim brought him out of his shell like nothing else did. He was dedicated to the cause, loved the people and being an active swimmer.”

In 2012, Mary decided it was time to follow in her younger brother’s footsteps across the beach and into the water. On Saturday, Aug. 3, she will continue her tradition for the 12th time when the Chicago Open Water Swim returns to Ohio Street Beach.

Facing cancer

The year before Russ got sick, Mary was facing her own health crisis. In late 2010, she was experiencing episodes of painful bloating that were worsening and becoming more frequent. After undergoing a series of tests, Mary’s doctor diagnosed her with ovarian cancer.

“I was surprised by my cancer diagnosis, and I was terrified,” she said.

Mary’s doctor referred her to Rush University Medical Center, where she knew she was in the best hands. Her team discussed her cancer care plan with her, and she started treatment quickly.

After a hysterectomy and several rounds of chemotherapy, Mary got the all-clear that she was cancer-free.

“I did my whole treatment at Rush,” she said. “I love the doctors, and I love the nurses. Everyone knew me by name every time I came in.” 

But just as Mary was at the tail end of her ovarian cancer treatment, Russ was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma.

“The end of my treatment was the beginning of the end for Russ,” Mary said. “In fact, I had to eulogize Russ while still wearing a wig from my chemo.”

Staying connected to Russ

Russ died just months after his family learned he was sick. As Mary faced life after cancer — without her younger brother — she felt compelled to do something to keep his spirit alive.

That’s when she received the email from SAA about the formation of Team Russ. Despite not being a swimmer, Mary was determined to carry on Russ’ legacy.

Learning that all the money raised would go to support cancer research at Rush strengthened her resolve to swim. Since 2012, SAA has partnered with Rush to raise more than $2.5 million to support cancer research and clinical trials. It also hosts events nationwide.

“I basically said, ‘I’m joining for sure,’” she remembered. “I had thought about doing the swim when I’d watch Russ swim but never did. After Russ passed, I became a can-do person.”

Although she wasn’t a natural swimmer, Mary was determined to do her brother proud in the water. She started swimming at least three times a week before work.

“I looked at it as regaining my health after cancer treatment,” Mary said. “I said to myself, ‘Look, my hair’s growing back; I can get in the pool and stay afloat — I’m unbeatable!’”

But what drove Mary more than anything was the strong connection to Russ she felt each time she plunged into the water.

“I’ve felt Russ when I’m swimming like I have in no other way since he’s passed,” Mary said. “And every year when I get to the beach for Swim Across America, I take in the whole vibe of the event, and I can feel him. It feels like he’s going to appear at any minute, just like he used to.”

Russ’ legacy continues to permeate the open water swim thanks in part to Mary’s commitment to it.

“Every single person who knew Russ now knows me,” she said. “To this day, people tell me stories about him I never knew before.”

The whole family now helps raise money for the cause. Another of Mary’s brothers comes to the race as a spectator every year, and two of her nieces have recently joined her in the water.

One of the hallmarks of the event is the rock ceremony. Participants write the names of the loved ones they are swimming for — survivors, people undergoing treatment and those who have died — on rocks. Then, everyone lines up and tosses the rocks into Lake Michigan at the same time.

This year, Mary and her nieces will once again write Russ’ name on their rocks. As they toss them into Lake Michigan and swim the same route he swam, they know they’re playing a vital role in supporting cancer research — which they hope leads to fewer names on rocks and many more survivors.

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