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177. Doug McConnell Sets Out to Achieve “Triple Crown” of Open Water Swimming

177. Doug McConnell Sets Out to Achieve “Triple Crown” of Open Water Swimming

Home Newsroom 177. Doug McConnell Sets Out to Achieve “Triple Crown” of Open Water Swimming

Barrington father-of-four and legendary local marathon swimmer Doug McConnell is at it again! After throwing the first pitch to start last night’s Cubs game against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley, Doug and and a crew of family and friends are on a plane bound for New York City as we speak to achieve something only about a dozen people in the world have ever accomplished.

Bob Lee Photographs Doug McConnel's First Pitch a the June 25, 2014 Cubs vs. Cincinnati Reds Game - Photographed by Susan McConnell
Bob Lee Photographs Doug McConnel’s First Pitch a the June 25, 2014 Cubs vs. Cincinnati Reds Game – Photographed by Susan McConnell

With his tight-knit team standing by to help make it happen, Doug plans to swim 28.5 miles in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) this Saturday.  He’s set out to become one of only 15 people over age 50 to complete the “Triple Crown” of Open Water Swimming.  To achieve this elite “Triple Crown” status, swimmers must successfully complete three massive open water swims across 1) the English Channel, 2) the Catalina Channel in southern California and 3) around Manhattan Island in New York City.

Doug has two of these three swims down, with only one to go.  On Saturday, he’ll be diving into the Harlem River near the base of the Statue of Liberty to tackle part III, achieving a personal goal and raising funds to help cure ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease which took his father’s life in 2008.

The Start of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim Near Battery Park in NYC - Photo Courtesy of Peter Yankala
The Start of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim Near Battery Park in NYC – Photo Courtesy of Peter Yankala

The First Two Swims

In September of 2011, Doug became one of only 50 people in the world over age 50 to swim across the English Channel on a 33 mile course in dark and intensely wavy waters.  Doug says that swim took him about 14 hours to complete.  “Think cold, dark, five-foot waves in the middle of nowhere and water as black as the inside of your pocket.”

Doug McConnell Swims the English Channel - Photographed by Susan McConnell
Doug McConnell Swims the English Channel – Photographed by Susan McConnell

In late 2012, Doug successfully swam across California’s Catalina Channel, a 27 mile course and over 12 hours of open ocean swimming.  “The Catalina waters were as flat as can be but we were swimming into the current for much of the way and that added extra time and distance to the swim.  Calm water also meant that we had a lot of jellyfish.  The water was crystal blue and fabulous, but it was like swimming through jellyfish soup and I was getting stings all over the place.”

Doug McConnell Swims the Catalina Channel - Photographed by Susan McConnell
Doug McConnell Swims the Catalina Channel – Photographed by Susan McConnell

Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

This Saturday, Doug and his crew are setting out complete that “Triple Crown”.  If all goes as planned, he’ll swim 28.5 miles in about 8 or 9 hours around Manhattan Island in New York City’s East, Harlem and Hudson Rivers.

New York City's Mahnattan Island - Photographed by Peter Yankala
New York City’s Mahnattan Island – Photographed by Peter Yankala

I recently met with Doug and his wife, well known Barrington photographer Susan McConnell, at Cook Street Coffee where he mapped out his Manhattan Island swim route for me on paper.

Doug McConnell Draws His Manhattan Island Swim at Cook Street Coffee
Doug McConnell Draws His Manhattan Island Swim on a Scrap of Paper at Cook Street Coffee

“During this swim, there will be plenty of commercial traffic, ferry boats and there are even container ships on the Hudson.  There will be parts where the water is very dirty and we have to be ready for that so I’ve been getting vaccinations ahead of time.”

Doug McConnell Draws His Manhattan Island Swim at Cook Street Coffee
Doug McConnell Draws His Manhattan Island Swim on a Cook Street Coffee Napkin

“What really worries me, though, is the stuff that’s floating in the water.  Wherever you have commercial traffic, you have stuff falling off boats.  And in a Speedo, cap and goggles, you don’t have much defense against two-by-fours with nails in them.  That’s why Susan and our crew will be in the escort boat.  My good friend Don Macdonald will be rowing with me in a kayak to really be the eyes and ears on this swim.”

Also a swimmer, Don Macdonald has been training with Doug and was his primary kayak guide during the Catalina swim.

Paddling Along in a Kayak, Don Macdonald Guides Swimmer Doug McConnell During Catalina Channel Swim - Photographed by Susan McConnell
Paddling Along in a Kayak, Don Macdonald Guides Swimmer Doug McConnell During Catalina Channel Swim – Photographed by Susan McConnell

Doug says this swim will also be different because he’ll be navigating a mix of fast moving and still waters with rushing tides, narrow stretches and downstream currents.  In reaching the finish line, Doug will also achieve a third round of funds raised for research to cure ALS, a disease he got to know all too well in the years following his father, Dave McConnell’s diagnosis.

The Swim of a Lifetime

Dave McConnell
Doug’s Father, Dave McConnell

“When my father was diagnosed, it was a real punch in the gut.  I remember the night he told us about it and there were two things that really struck me.  One is that I knew nothing about the disease other than the baseball player, Lou Gehrig.  The second was that, with an actuarial life expectancy after diagnosis, a patient is told to expect to live three to five years and that’s it.

What’s frustrating about ALS is the powerlessness that everybody feels.  You just watch your loved one come to pieces and it’s a slow motion shipwreck that no one can do anything about.  You just have to watch it wreck.  There’s nothing you can do and there’s no comfort you can provide and I remember that same night my father told us about his diagnosis he said, ‘You know there’s not a cure for this because there’s no money in it.'”

“5,000 people a year in this country are diagnosed with ALS and, given the mortality, there are 30,000 living with it at any given time. That’s just not enough people to really attract any research funding so that’s why people like me are doing crazy stuff to raise money.

The good news is that, even with the relatively small amount that we’ve been able to raise, the pace of the research is accelerating.  They’re making new discoveries all the time and I can’t tell you how gratifying that is.”

So along with Susan, his children and guides, with each swim the voice of Doug’s father has remained a constant among his crew and a current carrying hope along Doug’s channel to a cure.

While there is still no cure for ALS, Doug says great advances are being made daily at the at Les Turner ALS Foundation’s two research labs at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. During his first two swims, Doug raised over $200,000 for ALS research.  So far, Doug has raised about $20,000 for this Manhattan Island swim.  Half those funds will go to the Les Turner ALS Foundation and the other half to SwimFree.org, NYC Swim’s official charity.

To learn more about Doug’s swim and contribute to this quest, CLICK HERE to donate and visit ALongSwim.com.  They’ll also be posting live updates during Doug’s swim on Saturday on his A Long Swim Facebook page and at Twitter.com/alongswim1.

I’m sure Susan will be the source for many of those updates.  She’ll be there every stroke of the way.  “Being on the pilot boat is a lot of work.  We have to count his strokes every ten minutes.  We have to fix his drinks, get him his drinks, evaluate him and take notes. It’s a lot to keep track of but I don’t feel nervous because Doug is very competent, he’s very strong and I think he’s crazy ;).  I’m very proud of him because he set this awesome goal, he’s sticking with it and I know he can do it.”

Susan and Doug McConnell After his English Channel Swim
Susan and Doug McConnell After his English Channel Swim

To see the sights Doug will swim past as he circles Manhattan Island this weekend, check out this video of the Manhattan swim in 2012. Good luck, Doug! We look forward to hearing all about your latest “long swim” when you’re back home in Barrington.

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