When you become one of only fifty people in the world over fifty years old to successfully swim the English Channel, you don’t come home without a smile on your face. And you definitely don’t come home to a dark and empty house.
Neighbors and friends greeted Doug McConnell and his family with big cheers, champagne and welcome signs outside of their Barrington home on Saturday night. The toasts were for Doug and his team who brought back an impressive story about crossing the Channel and raising nearly $150,000 to help find a cure for the disease that took his father’s life. “I got to be the guy that touched the sand, but it was everybody’s victory.”
Doug says he counted each stroke during the 14 and a half hours it took him to cross the Channel. His kids and wife, Barrington photographer, Susan McConnell, stood by with helping hands and snapping cameras every stroke of the way. Doug talks about getting “slapped around” by 5-foot waves, night swimming in inky black waters and working hard to steer clear of jellyfish and Channel traffic during his 21-mile swim. But the message that I’ll most remember was when Doug said, simply, “On the one hand, swimming the Channel was quite an undertaking; on the other, it really was just putting one hand in front of the other, 40,538 times.”
It all started when Doug heard from his boat pilot soon after they arrived in England that the weather forecast for the week looked grim. He said there was a small window where Doug might make it, if he was willing to move fast. “I was floored, and sputtered something about the fact that I was supposed to be fourth in line for this tide, that I wasn’t expecting to swim until late in the week at least.” But the McConnells seized the opportunity and jumped into action as Doug made last minute preparations for the swim of his life.
When the time came, Doug jumped off the back of his pilot’s boat and swam ashore to start his swim from dry land on a beach just south of Dover. “While on that beach, which is really more like gravel, I gathered my thoughts. I was buzzing from how quickly it had all come together, but I had accepted the offer to go and felt like I had better deliver. I gave the thumbs up, and he blew the air horn. I stepped into the water around 1:00 p.m.” Doug is a lifelong swimmer, but his specialty is the butterfly. So that’s what he chose for his first three strokes. He started with the familiar, found his rhythm and he was off and swimming.
But things got choppy just outside Dover Harbor. He ran into the turbulent, five-foot waves the boat pilot warned him about. Doug says the waves themselves are one thing, but the tides and winds worked against him, causing confused seas and big challenges for six hours of his swim. “There is no rhythm to the waves, and I just couldn’t get a consistent stroke cadence going. The feeling is one of just getting slapped around by the waves, taking in lots of seawater, and trying to keep on course.” Doug also underwent cervical disc replacement surgery last year to treat a herniated disc that disabled his left arm. That caused some difficulties, but he kept moving forward, hugging his boat the best he could to keep clear of the huge commercial vessels that he knew were nearby.
Doug says the waves eventually calmed, but he kept counting strokes to keep his mind off concerns about cold water, jellyfish and the coming darkness. “During the daylight, I was surprised to see the clarity of the water; I guess I had expected it to be murkier….”
“…After dark, though, the water was inky black. It wasn’t colder or more unpredictable, but just gives you this feeling of staring into infinity.” Doug swam through darkness for seven hours, chugging bottles of liquid nutrition tossed from the boat by his son Gordy every 30 minutes or 1,750 strokes. Then, finally, after swimming 21-miles, he heard these words, “Mate, you’re there. I am going to shine the spotlight at a beach, and all you have to do is follow the light.” Doug says that after 14 hours of following his boat pilot’s instructions, he wasn’t about to stop. “So I swam for the light. I finally felt the sand under my left hand, and I knew I could stand. I had made it to France.” He reached the finish line and stumbled onto dry land at 3 a.m. in France’s Wissant Bay. It was too dark at the time to take pictures, but the family later returned to see where it happened and celebrate.
The same day Doug completed his swim, on August 21st, some big news broke here in the states. Scientists at Northwestern University announced that, after decades of research, they’ve discovered a common cause for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. They say the breakthrough could ultimately help them also find treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s. Doug calls the timing “serendipitous” because, as he rallied support for his swim, he’s raised close to $150,000 for research initiatives supported by the Les Turner ALS Foundation. Doug’s father, David McConnell, lived with ALS for 14 years before losing his life to the disease several years ago. Doug says his dad was very much on his mind as he swam the Channel. “While I was swimming I could just hear him laughing. It was a big victory for our family and he would have been front and center in that.”
When I spoke with Doug today to get his reaction to the good and timely news in the fight against ALS he said the research process “makes a Channel swim look like a walk around the block. This is really earthshaking stuff so the fact that we’re able to put another log on that fire is pretty exciting.” And when I asked him what he learned from his swim, he told me what he says he told his kids. “There are always going to be things in life that are a little outside your comfort zone, like making a difficult call at work, getting into an uncomfortable negotiation or finishing your algebra homework every single day. But if you put the right puzzle pieces in place, you can really do some pretty extraordinary things.” Doug’s success is a reminder that, whether you’re swimming the Channel or finding a cure, anything is possible with commitment, a great team and one simple stroke at a time.
Doug is close, but he has yet to reach his $150,o00 fundraising goal for the Channel swim. Medtronic, the company that makes Doug’s cervical disc device, has made a $50,000 contribution and there is another challenge grant that Doug is in the running to receive. It’s easy to pitch in to help him reach his goal and you can do so by clicking HERE. If you’d like to read more about Doug McConnell’s Channel swim, you’ll find the whole story, in his own words, on his personal blog at ALongSwim.com. You’ll also find a chance to meet Doug in person next weekend. He’s taking part in Saturday’s Big Shoulders 5K Swim which starts at 8 a.m. at Ohio Street Beach in Chicago. After the swim, Doug will head over to 10th Annual ALS Walk for Life which starts at 9:30 at Montrose Harbor. For more information about the Les Turner ALS Foundation, visit LesTurnerALS.org and you can check out this video to see Doug warming up in Dover Harbor.