48. Childhood Swims Spark English Channel Challenge

6 mins read

What does swimming the English Channel have to do with childhood summer camp?  A Barrington man’s boyhood days at a Wisconsin camp in the 60’s were an early inspiration for one of his life’s biggest challenges.  Doug McConnell is nearing the end of months of intense training to swim the English Channel this August. And in these final weeks before he takes that leap, he will be returning to Camp Edwards every Friday to teach and sharpen the mindset he knows he’ll need while alone in the open Channel waters.

The English Channel swim is a 21 to 30 mile stretch that takes an average of 13.5 hours to complete. Depending on the tides, Doug will dive in sometime between August 20th and August 27th. He will start in Dover, England and finish near Calais, France, enduring bone-chilling waters, unyielding currents and the possibility of raw weather and rain without the light of day. He’ll have a boat, a guide and brief in-water feeding breaks to keep him going and he’s been preparing to face feelings of unnerving isolation while swimming miles through frigid, inky darkness.

English Channel Swim Map

Between now an then, Doug will take the lead at his childhood summer camp weekly as kids take on a 1/2 mile open water swim to a small island in Lake Beulah. He hopes to show today’s campers the power of personal goals, preparation and perseverance. It’s a final exercise Doug says will also help him mentally prepare for the challenge ahead. “So much of camp is experiencing things that you’ve never experienced before. It’s working through the excitement, eliminating the fear and enabling yourself to try new things.”

Barrington Man Swims the English Channel
Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Successfully swimming the English Channel takes a carefully calculated balance between the right nutrition, practice regimen, mental preparation, team and coach.

Doug McConnell Prepares to Swim the English ChannelI learned that from Doug’s companion, strongest supporter, and wife, Barrington photographer, Susan McConnell. There’s no one who knows Doug and understands his commitment to this goal like Susan does. So I asked her to share a glimpse into these last days of Doug’s training, with her own photography and in her own words. You’ll love and learn from this beautifully written guest post from Susan about Doug’s recent return to summer camp.

Buck Island … The English Channel … The Lesson

Rising at the crack of dawn, I put on my jeans and packed my camera.  An hour later, driving down the long road to Camp Edwards is like driving down into time.  Growing up near the Adirondacks I swear I’m back home.  But I’m not in New York State anymore; this is Wisconsin.

Yet this does feel like home.  My children have gone to camp here since they could remember.  Every year Camp Edwards greets them, one year older, and hugs them like the home away from home that it is.  The counselors are usually the same and lots of the same campers.  And while the activities change and sway with the times, Camp is pretty much the same as it was in 1966 when my own husband, Doug, went there for the first time as a nine year old.

It was that year that he made his first open water swim from the shores of Camp Edwards to Buck Island.  A 1/2 mile swim that kids have a chance to make every summer.  A swim that teaches them that as they move forward in life they can do anything.  It’s a huge accomplishment for a little kid with a huge lesson behind it. It was a lesson that Doug learned and held on to his whole life. This August he’ll be on an open water swim of a different kind by taking on the English Channel.  31 miles.  30 and 1/2 miles longer than the Buck Island Swim.

On this morning I boarded the pontoon boat and pointed my camera at the pack of 12 kids who were about to earn the gift of the Buck Island lesson.

Kids Swim Open Waters at Camp Edwards with English Channel Swimmer, Doug McConnell
Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Along with all the other things they learn at Camp, this was on their bucket list. I didn’t know any of them. None stood out. They posed with Doug on the chilly edge of the pier, then laughing and squealing, into the cold water they went.

Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Three immediately took the lead and their guide boat, two lifeguards in a row boat, escorted them.  Eight became a group with about the same pace and their guide boat collected them.  Their heads bobbed in the water and they had some fun as they were a little less serious than the three in the lead.

Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

One stayed behind.  And there she was; the one that would stand out. The driver of the pontoon boat, the guy in charge of the whole scene, said, “Those three that’ll get to the island first, they’ll get it, to some degree.  But that one, the one that is really struggling, she’ll really accomplish something today.”

Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Doug stayed with her the whole time.  When I asked him about it he told me, “She was really struggling at first and was whimpering a little.  I told her that it wasn’t a race, and that we would go to the Island together.  She didn’t exactly use traditional swimming strokes, but with some reassurance and some extra time she made it across.  She spent so much of the hour being convinced that she wasn’t going to make it that I was that much more proud of her for sticking with it and really knocking down the challenge.  It is what Camp Edwards is all about.”

Preparing to Swim the English Channel
Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

The first three would reach the island in 33 minutes.  The next eight would reach the island in 47 minutes.  The last one, whose name was Ashlyn, arrived with Doug in 64 minutes.  Each received a round of applause as they finished.  Ashlyn received a round so loud that it probably woke up everyone around the lake.

As Doug helped Ashlyn up on to the pontoon boat he put a rock on the deck next to her.  It was a rock that he picked up as she touched the island.  “Here you go.  Here’s your piece of Buck Island.  Congratulations.”

Swimming at Sumer Camp
Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Standing on the little stage at the front of the lodge after breakfast, the kids received their accolades and perhaps their first standing ovation.  There were one hundred and fifty kids in the room, and twelve lucky ones had received the gift of Buck Island lesson that day.  They all knew they had accomplished something, but Ashlyn’s shy smile said it all.

She knows full well now that she can do anything she wishes.  And she can call herself, by all rights, an open water swimmer.  Perhaps one day swimming the English Channel will be on her bucket list.

This summer Doug will go up for every session at Camp Edwards and tell his story about learning the lesson.  He’ll escort the Ashlyn of every group.  And I’ll be there to record it.

Photo Courtesy of Susan McConnell

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your story from Camp Edwards.  You’ll find more of Susan’s personal photos and updates about Doug’s training on her blog at at MyBionicBoyfriend.com.

I had a quick conversation with Doug McConnell this week.  He calls Camp Edwards a “Magical Place” and says his childhood days there are among the most pivotal experiences in his life.  He sent all of his own children to the same camp, he’s on the Camp Edwards Board of Directors and he strongly encourages that we also consider the camp for our own kids.   Camp Edwards typically fills up fast, but there are still open sessions at Camp Edwards this summer.  If you’d like to learn more about Camp Edwards and enroll a camper, you’ll find all of the information you need at CampEdwards.org.

Doug McConnell is one of two Barrington men taking on the English Channel this summer. His friend and training partner, Don MacDonald, will also be swimming The Channel this August. They’re also swimming for two great causes.  Doug is raising money for medical research to fight ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Don has teamed up with the Barrington 220 Educational Foundation to support social and emotional learning for district students.  You can track their progress on their personal blogs at ALongSwim.com and One-Stroke-at-a-Time.Blogspot.com.  We’ll be sharing more about Doug and Don’s preparations in the coming weeks right here at 365Barrington.com.

Doug was also featured by Chicago’s ABC 7 news this week.  You can catch up with him during a recent Lake Michigan swim by checking out this video:


  1. Liz, you did a wonderful job of wrapping up this story which comes from many different angles. Thanks for your support on behalf of Camp Edwards as well as Doug’s efforts. You have brought to light all that goes on in Barrington and we all enjoy your blog.

    • This article makes me want to experience the wonder of an open water swim with one caveat :-)…Doug has to be there to convince me I can do it. The ‘piece of Buck Island’ brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for continuing to tell this story. It’s an important one.

  2. My son, Charlie, attended session 1 at Camp Edwards this summer. He listened to Doug talk about his experiences. Although he wasn’t ready to attempt the Buck Island swim then, he is considering it for next time. He had such an amazing experience at Camp Edwards in June that he is returning in August! Perhaps he’ll try the swim then? Regardless, the lessons learned at summer camp this year are all good ones. Best of luck, Doug, on your adventure swimming the English Channel. You are providing inspiration to all those who hear your story.

  3. The McConnell’s introduced us to Camp Edwards last year. This was our daughter’s second year at the camp! She has the most wonderful experiences up in East Troy. She looks forward to going all year long. She saw Doug on Friday and although she didn’t try the Buck Island swim, she says she’ll try next year! I wish I could spend my summers up at Camp Edwards!

  4. Liz – You are a magician. You captured these unique elements of Camp, all built around a single challenge that the kids can meet. Attending Camp Edwards, and the ongoing relationship my family and I have with it, really is one of the pivotal experiences and elements in my life. Thank you for your wonderful piece on an iconic place.

  5. This was wonderful to read, and the photos do not lie: Camp Edwards is a magical place, and the Buck Island swim is just one of the many adventures that kept me coming back year after year. The photos did a nice job of capturing the progression of the typical Buck Island swimmer’s psyche: shivering anticipation to quiet triumph, all upon the shores of beautiful grey-blue Lake Beulah.

  6. We are elated to have been represented by Susan and Doug in this spotlight; and of course Liz for her wonderful blog. The campers have had a wonderful time learning about Doug’s perserverence and we hope that this motivates them to achieve greatness in their own rite. We are all pulling for Doug in his challenge and praying for his success. Speaking for Camp Edwards, we look forward in serving and touching the lives of many more kids as they navigate the waters of their own lives. Although we are a YMCA, we are open to all who seek the challenge to better themselves through the wonderment of camp. And better yet, some of our later sessions still has availability if others want to challenge the waters of Lake Beulah.

  7. Like so many others, Camp Edwards has been a life-changing experience for me. I feel like of all the time I spent growing up, some of the most important stuff happened at summer camp. Every child deserves the excitement, the friendship, the growth, and the feeling of belonging that he or she can find there. Thanks, Doug, for making those experiences even more meaningful.

  8. We have had the pleasure of loving the McConnell’s and Camp Edwards for over 10 years now. Doug and Susan encouraged us to send our oldest daughter to camp and it was a remarkable experience for her. She had a ball, but also learned so many things that she will carry in her life skill toolbox forever. Our youngest is enjoying the two week session right now and we’re looking forward to hearing all about her adventures -a swim to Buck Island , perhaps? We wish Doug all the best -he is an inspiration to us all.

  9. Doug,

    I swam with you at Elgin high school circa 1975-1976. I still remember coach Hamrin screaming in my ear every morning around 05:30. I don’t remember if I met you at Camp Edwards or when you practiced with us at Elgin. This brought back many memories of events at Camp Edwards and great people that helped shape my adult life. Some of the folks that I recall: Bob Huber, Chuck Huber, Steve Schmittendorf, Pete Leuck, and “Red” the caretaker, the swamp hike. Good luck with the channel crossing if you see this let me know how I can help in any way.


    • Now there’s a name that scared me more than T.P. Pierre! Red, the caretaker! Mine is Lynn Huber (Jablonski). I attended Camp Edwards for the first time in 1957. My photo shows a toddler’s bare bottom, a diaper drooping ’round her ankles on Lions Pier. That kid kept coming back for decades. With memories come a realization, lasting evidence of things that had true significance. Now, names that had faded and timeworn events have emerged, full color, as Doug McConnell trains for the English Channel undertaking.

      PS RE: any rules broken, or pranks during the early 70’s – I was asleep or doing something else ……

  10. What a wonderful article. Well done. It brought tears to my eyes and confirmed what a wonderful, “magical” place Camp Edwards is and has been for so many kids. My three kids went to camp several years, Julie achieving her purple kerchief. Every year, they came back different. It is a great place for kids to experience. Best of luck to Doug next month. We’ll be watching his progress.

    Cathy Malm

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