By Amanda Sangster - May 17, 2021
Zachary Gallagher learned about the tenth annual Swim Across America event through his swim club. The Tampa Preparatory School junior didn’t know much about the event or what it entailed, but once he saw that the funds went to Moffitt Cancer Center and John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, he knew immediately that he wanted to participate. His mother, Danni Gallagher, is a patient at Moffitt.
“He didn’t really say much about it, just that he wanted to sign up,” said Danni. “I was just proud of him at that point that he wanted to do it. I had no idea his reasoning behind it.”
Upon entering the race in early April, Zachary created a post on Instagram dedicated to his mother. In the post, he asked for donations and support from his peers, citing his mother as the driving force behind his reason for competing.
“I will be swimming my race for her as she has stood by my side against all adversity, even through her own struggles,” Zachary wrote in the post. “I love you Mom and thank you.”
It was a complete surprise to Danni.
Within just a few weeks, Zachary’s donations had reached over $5,000. By May 8, the day of the Swim Across America race, he became Tampa Bay’s top fundraiser with more than $13,000 in donations.
What really blew the Gallagher family away was that most donations came from Zachary’s peers. “It’s been awesome,” said Danni. “I think what was really touching was how many kids donated. They were all getting behind him.”
Danni has been battling stage 4 anal cancer since August 2020. Diagnosed in the middle of the pandemic, she says the hardest part of her experience was attending her appointments alone.
“I wasn’t scared at all to come to Moffitt, even though it was a confusing time,” said Danni. “I’ve done all my treatments by myself. When you’re alone, it’s really difficult.”
When she told her kids of her diagnosis, it was Zachary who responded that if anyone could get through this it was his mother because he knew she was the strongest one.
“It came out of left field and totally unexpected along with COVID-19,” said Zachary. “I knew as long as she stayed on track with treatment and our family stayed safe to offer her that additional level of protection around her, she would do great. At the start, I was scared especially seeing her lose her hair, but we got used to it.”
The Gallagher family has remained positive throughout Danni’s cancer journey. She says it has helped them get through the darkest times.
“We can’t sit there and dwell on it all because it will go downhill fast if you allow yourself to do that,” said Danni. “We stay pretty positive and open about it. If someone is feeling scared or bad about the situation, we get together and talk through it.”
Over the past two months, Danni has started to feel better and more like herself which she says helps. “I can finally do things with my kids,” said Danni. “I can be more of the typical mom running around and trying to be there for their sporting events. Because of COVID, we couldn’t go to Zach’s swim meets and everything was shut down. It feels good to do that again.”
Joining her son at Swim Across America on Mother’s Day weekend was one of the first races Danni has watched her son compete in since the pandemic and her cancer diagnosis. It was emotional for her.
“It’s amazing and it’s already so emotional just to watch him compete,” said Danni. “Seeing him move through the water and put it all out there while doing a great job – he’s just a fantastic swimmer. Of course, that’s mom talking, right? But I love watching him move through the water. He’s just a powerhouse. I’m very proud of him and not just in the pool. He’s a good student and he has a sweetheart. He’s a good kid.”
Zachary isn’t sure what he will get his mom next year for Mother’s Day, but he knows the bar is raised high after this. He had never competed in an open water event before the Swim Across America event but is already looking forward to outdoing himself next year.