Alcatraz, once a symbol of captivity and criminality, is a form of release for 16-year-old Sean Gage.
When swimming the long, cold trek, Sean is able to access a fear that he had to deal with from a young age — his mother’s battle with breast cancer.
“I remember the fear that she had when she had breast cancer, and I could relate that fear to the first time I was swimming (Alcatraz),” Sean said. “Seeing the seaweed underwater and like seeing things under water, it’s so scary. I related that fear.”
It was his mother who first got Sean to swim at two years old, and he has connected the two ever since. Now, he swims the 100-meter breaststroke and 200 individual medley at Brophy College Prep and is looking to swim competitively in college in two years.
“It’s a huge part in everything that I’ve done,” he said.
When Sean was just seven, he found out his mother, who he lived with after his parents’ divorce, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I didn’t really know what the cancer was, and I didn’t know what I could do,” he said. “I just felt helpless. I couldn’t really do anything to help her. It was a hard process, and we got over it together.”
Sean’s mother survived her battle with breast cancer, and Sean used his experience for good.
He set out to help others like him who had parents dealing with breast cancer. The high school sophomore did everything he could to help, even launching a coping camp and giving away care packs, which included a variety of books, notes and other guides to help children who needed support.
The highlight of the packs are the “Bear Hearts,” which are a pair of stuffed bears shared between the parent and their child. Once the parent goes off for treatment, the two exchange encouragement through leaving a note inside the back pocket of the bear. The two, like the parent and child, are always together.
Sean’s way of staying with his mother included travel, with one particularly notable trip.
Once he first traveled to Alcatraz, he knew his next goal.
“We went to San Francisco when I was 11, and we went to Alcatraz,” he said. “I looked across and I said, ‘I’m going to swim this one day.’ And my mom said, ‘No you’re not…’ I kept bugging her and bugging her and eventually she let me swim it when I was 13.
“Right when I got in the water, I said, ‘I’m going to do this next year. I can’t wait.'”
When at Alcatraz, however, Sean stands out a bit from the rest. Notably, his suit.
It’s pink, representative of his mother’s battle.
That said, it’s not his goal. Sean has been raising money for a fully pink wet suit with a breast cancer symbol on it, but his current digs work just fine.
“What I’m doing now is wearing a black suit and duct tape pink ribbon over the front of it,” Sean said. “That’s all I can do right now. We’re close to reaching our goal of the pink wet suit because I’m trying to do this for years to come.”
Ultimately, Sean’s mission is to ensure no kid ever has to deal with their parents’ cancer alone.
“Not having some sort of support like that, I just know it’s not a great feeling,” Sean said. “I went through that…we have 50 to 60 kids at our last camp.”