Olympian Summer Sanders Champions Skin Cancer Prevention

February 21, 2017

Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders owned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as a 19-year-old phenom, taking home four medals in swimming. Then it was on to television—rocking a career as a host, reporter and analyst for Nickelodeon’s Figure It Out, the NBA’s Inside Stuff, and most currently CBS Sports and Good Morning America. Now Summer, who has two young children and is married to World Cup skier Erik Schlopy, is using her winning energy to bring awareness to skin cancer prevention.

Summer has teamed up with the John Wayne Cancer Foundation—the Newport Beach-based organization that raises awareness for skin cancer prevention and funds for research. The organization helps support research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, and the two organizations work together closely to carry out John Wayne’s legacy of finding cures for cancer.

Skin cancer awareness is an issue that’s near to Summer’s heart. In 2014 at age 42, Summer had a mole removed from her calf.

“I was at the dermatologist’s office for a routine visit. Neither my doctor nor I really thought the mole was anything to be concerned about,” she says. Days later, though, she felt entirely different: Summer was told she had malignant melanoma—one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer.

“I’m a detail-oriented, organized person. It’s the athlete in me,” she says. “But getting a cancer diagnosis felt like I was losing control.” Within the year, Summer’s doctors would find—and successfully treat—two additional melanomas. Control regained.

Summer, who grew up in Northern California, started to swim competitively at the age of 4. She says she diligently applied sunscreen during pool or beach vacations but didn’t wear sun protection at swim practices or meets, most of which were held outdoors.

“I had obviously been falsely confident. My dad’s mother is from South America. My dad and I have dark hair, skin and eyes, and my mother and brother have fair skin and blue eyes. I didn’t think I’d ever have skin cancer,” she says. She didn’t see any need to use sunscreen during her hours at the pool.

“I was in the pool all the time. I had to admit that my love for my sport had probably led to the cancer.”
A 20-year volunteer and board member with Right To Play, a foundation that brings sports and play to disadvantaged children, Summer has always been dedicated to using her celebrity status to draw attention to causes that benefit kids. But she particularly wanted to team up with John Wayne Cancer Foundation’s Block the Blaze program because of its commitment to reach kids in sports.

As national spokesperson, Summer volunteers her time and mainly represents the John Wayne Cancer Foundation at skin cancer related meetings, conferences, forums and youth sporting events. Block the Blaze has a partnership with U.S.A. Swimming and the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash program, which works to prevent childhood drowning. In addition, partnerships with the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA), the California Surf Lifesaving Association (CSLSA), Real Watersports and other organizations, help to spread the Block the Blaze program. Summer says she appreciates that Block the Blaze vans and the instructors travel to “places where there are kids and water,” providing education and sun safety tips, hats and sunscreen.

She hopes her role as an Olympic athlete helps raise awareness of sun safety among kids, especially young athletes. “Anyone in youth outdoor sports is especially vulnerable.” And as a mom, she’s certain Block the Blaze is targeting the right person in the house.

“I have my own kids, and I know how it works,” Summer says. “When children learn something, they can’t wait to teach the whole family. My goal is to empower people to prevent skin cancer, so I have to speak directly to the kids.”