NEW HAVEN -- For a decade now, it has been one of Jim Calhoun's many charitable missions. A campaign he will never stop working for.

Four times in his life, the first time in 2003, Calhoun was told that he had cancer. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer, and twice -- in 2007 and 2008 -- he had procedures to remove skin cancer from his cheek and neck. Then last May, the former UConn men's basketball coach had a cancerous lump removed from his right lung.

And while he spoke about his battles with cancer, Calhoun also shouted out his thanks to the people who lay their lives on the line on a daily basis. The 70-year-old coach was the keynote speaker Wednesday night for a Swim Across the Sound fundraiser at Anthony's Ocean View restaurant, and close to 500 people heard him talk about the remarkable work that the first responders do.

"When you think of the first responders, they're all such special people," Calhoun said before the dinner. "You think of a nurse that you wake up to sometimes when you're in dire straits. Or the times you meet a doctor. These people can have a direct impact on whether a person lives or dies."

The ninth annual Swim Sports Gala and Auction benefits Connecticut's EMS personnel, along with police, fire and corrections officers, and their families battling cancer. Last year's benefit generated over $100,000 in donations, and organizers were hoping to top that amount this year.

The Swim, now in its 26th year, provides cancer education, screening and prevention programs at low or no cost for the uninsured and underinsured and helps more than 20,000 people each year. Last year, the Swim's charities raised over $2.6 million.

"Between this and St. Vincent's (Hospital), the first responders here, helping them or their families deal with cancer, this is something that I'm more than happy to do. I'm honored to," Calhoun said. "Those responders, the police, fire, whatever, when that bell goes off, as they say, they're ready. That's an incredible thing. It takes a special person to do what they do.

"In athletics, we always use words like `hero' and `courage,' but I maintain that we misplace that word sometimes. They are true heroes. I can't imagine doing what they do."

Calhoun coached UConn for 26 seasons, winning three NCAA championships and finishing with a record of 625-243. Overall, in 40 years (14 at Northeastern), his won-loss mark is a sparkling 873-380. He retired on Sept. 13, 2012. He now works as a special assistant to UConn athletic director Warde Manuel.;