A Long Swim - Tower Road Beach - Winnetka 5K, 2.4 mile, 1.2 mile and 1,500 meter Open Water Swim Set for Sunday, August 6 at 7:00AM

Course map for swimmers, safety personnel and lifeguards for 2.4 miles, 1.2 miles and 1,500 meters.  5K course map will be distributed at the event.  

Course map for swimmers, safety personnel and lifeguards for 2.4 miles, 1.2 miles and 1,500 meters.  5K course map will be distributed at the event.  

Over 100 triathletes and open water swimmers are expected on Sunday, August 6, for A Long Swim – Tower Road Beach - Winnetka. Registration begins at 6:00am, and the swims begin at 7:00am. Below is important information: 

·         The events will start at different times; the 5K will go first at 7:00AM, with the remaining distances following in safe increments.

·         Our goal is to have 50 or fewer swimmers per starting wave; registrations may dictate that we split an event into multiple waves.

·         We will utilize an in-water start in the location at the gate as indicated on the map. 

·         Swimmers will be logged onto the course as they cross the timing treadle on the beach, but the clock will only start when the horn sounds.

·         The finish will be logged when the swimmers cross the timing treadle on the beach.

·         All swims will be counterclockwise.

·         As swimmers will swim multiple laps of the course, the beginning of each lap will be the original starting line.

·         When swimmers have completed their required number of laps of the course, they will exit the course through the gate and swim to the finishing archway on the beach.

·         All corner buoys will be kept to the swimmers’ left shoulders.

·         There will be 10 lifeguards in kayaks around the course, and three motorboats also with safety personnel.

.          We have a secured gear area for your peace of mind. #wegotyoucovered

Registration is encouraged on line for the lowest price plus the opportunity to fundraise for ALS to earn triathlon gear and wetsuits.  

Registration is here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-long-swim-winnetka-5k-24-miles-12-miles-1500-meters-open-water-swim-event-for-triathletes-and-tickets-33106224609

Fundraising/Donor opportunities are here: https://www.crowdrise.com/alongswim

Corporate sponsorship opportunities should be directed to dmcconnell@vissantcapital.com.

A Long Swim - Three Oaks, Crystal Lake - 1,500 meters, 1.2 and 2.4 miles set for Sunday, June 25

Over 100 swimmers and triathletes are expected on Sunday, June 25, for A Long Swim – Three Oaks, Crystal Lake. Registration begins at 6:00am, and the event begins at 7:00am. Attached is a map of the swim course, along with the following explanatory bullet points:

·         The events will start at different times; the 2.4 mile swim will be at 7:00am, the 1.2 mile swim will start at 7:30am and the 1,500 meter swim will start at 7:40am.

·         Our goal is to have 50 or fewer swimmers per starting wave; registrations may dictate that we split an event into multiple waves.

·         We will utilize an in-water start in the location at the gate as indicated on the map. 

·         Swimmers will be logged onto the course as they cross the timing treadle on the beach, but the clock will only start when the horn sounds.

·         The finish will be logged when the swimmers cross the timing treadle on the beach.

·         All swims will be counterclockwise.

·         As swimmers will swim multiple laps of the course, the beginning of each lap will be the original starting line.

·         When swimmers have completed their required number of laps of the course, they will exit the course through the gate and swim to the finishing archway on the beach.

·         All corner buoys will be kept to the swimmers’ left shoulders.

·         There will be 10 lifeguards in kayaks around the course, and three motorboats also with safety personnel.

.          We have a secured gear area for your peace of mind. #wegotyoucovered

Registration is encouraged on line for the lowest price plus the opportunity to fundraise for ALS to earn triathlon gear and wetsuits.  

Registration is here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-long-swim-three-oaks-crystal-lake-1500-meters-12-miles-24-miles-open-water-swim-event-for-tickets-33105936748

Fundraising/Donor opportunities are here: https://www.crowdrise.com/alongswim

Corporate sponsorship opportunities should be directed to Douglas McConnell.

A Long Swim Announces 3 Summer Open Water Swims In Chicagoland

A Long Swim announces three open water swim events with distances of 1,500 meters. 1.2 miles and 2.4 miles for triathletes, open water swimmers, and athletes.  All courses are professional timed for the perfect opportunity to gauge training under race conditions.  Wetsuits are welcome at all events. The venues with registration links are: 

A Long Swim - Lake Zurich - June 4

A Long Swim - Three Oaks - Crystal Lake - June 25

A Long Swim - Tower Road Beach - Winnetka - August 6

On line registration is encouraged and do of registration is allowed. While the rest of the Chicago area is sleeping, doors open at 6:00am and the swim begins at 7:00am. Registration costs range between $50-60.  

A Long Swim is a series of open water swimming events benefiting ALS (Loud Gehrig's) research and are led by English Channel Swimmer, Doug McConnell. Each swimmer has an opportunity to fundraise and earn a package to waive their registration fee and earn triathelon and open water swimming gear, including wet suits, on course goggles and transition bags. 

Each event location offers pristine water conditions. Lake Zurich is a private residential lake, Three Oaks is a rock quarry and Tower Road Beach faces challenging Lake Michigan.  

Sponsorship opportunities await corporations wishing to appeal to a very focused demographic of athletes.  Contact Doug McConnell for information. 

NOTE: The media is welcome at all events. 

A Long Swim Loses a Key Teammate - Sparkle On, Dear Meghan

Our dear friend, Meghan O’Doherty, 41, has passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Meg leaves behind an uncountable number of friends, but our hearts bleed for her family, and especially for her daughter Eileen.

Our history with Meg has had a prominent place in our writing about A Long Swim, but our relationship goes back much farther.

We met Meg when she answered a “Mother’s Helper Wanted” flyer that Susan had put on a bulletin board at  the local grade school in early 1988. We had just moved to town, and we needed some help on a couple of weekday afternoons for our six-month old son, Mack. Susan specified in the flyer that she was looking for an 8th-grade girl to fill the position. Meg answered the ad, and admitted that she didn’t fill all of the requirements; she was still a 7th grader. Even though she was only 12 years old, she felt up to the task, as she was the oldest girl in her big family and was eager to learn. Susan agreed to give her a try.

What Susan immediately learned was that Meg wasn’t a typical 12 year old. She was experienced, organized, serious and at the same time playful. In short order, Susan upgraded Meg from “mother’s helper” to “full-fledged babysitter.” What a lucky day. 

I remember the first time I met Meg, which would have been 29 years ago. She was completely comfortable with the baby, whom she had charmed as completely as she had the rest of us. More importantly, she showed the spark even then that was so completely her own and was one of her most defining characteristics. Meg’s freckled face was perpetually happy, and had that glowing smile that makes the Irish so endearing. Meg came into our lives by accident, but stayed on purpose. 

As our family grew, so did Meg’s involvement. She welcomed each of our children as we brought them home, and she became tight friends with Susan’s mother, Verona, whom we also cared for.  Through high school and beyond, Meg had keys to our house and our cars, and it was immediately clear to everyone who was in charge as she walked through the door.

We enjoyed an evolution in our relationship, where Meg was less of a babysitter and more of a friend. We enjoyed vacations together, took road trips together and drank wine long into the night. Meg and Susan became best friends and their best of friendship endured till the very end.  

And then Eileen was born.  Meg often said that she would parent Eileen “just like a fifth McConnell baby” and we couldn’t have been more flattered. Even as a little one, Eileen blended right into the mix with the vacations and road trips. 

Meg with Ashley McConnell giving a brand new Eileen a bottle.  

Meg with Ashley McConnell giving a brand new Eileen a bottle.  

As A Long Swim became more serious, it was perfectly natural that Meg become more involved. As a preparatory swim for the English Channel in 2011, we signed up for the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, a 24-mile south to north trek through that body of water. Susan and the kids were there, and she had a phone conversation with Meg the evening before. “We could really use you on the crew for this swim,” Susan said, “we’re going to have our hands full.”

The next morning, Meg showed up to join the crew for the swim. It was the most natural thing in the world. Everyone was learning, but Meg quickly took control. Feeding cycles, stroke counting, log book entries and keeping people happy and upbeat but out of the hot sun – Meg just figured it out. Her involvement kept everyone organized and focused. Susan said afterward, “I think we have our hands on the best project manager in the world. Meg will be our Navigator.”

Meg and Gordy McConnell on Tampa Bay. 

Meg and Gordy McConnell on Tampa Bay. 

So, it was self-evident that Meg would also manage the English Channel crew a few months later. Of course, much of the excitement of the swim was the fact that we traveled to England and France. What we hadn’t bargained for was the fact that we swam the Channel the day after we arrived in England.  

There was a bit of hair-on-fire scrambling as we all prepared for the swim, and Meg was her typical calming self.  When we arrived, with all of our kids + Eileen, our boat pilot, the famous Lance Oram, took one look at us and said, "Who are all these kids?"  Meg had nestled Eileen into the bunch, so she wouldn't be as noticed, and I said, "This is our crew."  I'll never forget looking at them, all wide eyed with non-matching coats and hats, like the professional crews have.  I'm sure Lance thought that A Long Swim would be A Short Swim and he would make his money and that would be that.  He had no idea how seriously trained this crew was and how brave Eileen was.  

We made it across the English Channel and then went on to spend two weeks in England together. We took all of the kids to every castle throughout South East England. We had dinner at English pubs.  We even took the ferry from Dover to France and found our landing spot and celebrated together on the beach. We made unforgettable memories. 

Meg O'Doherty and Bill McConnell (Eileen in the foreground) approaching Dover at dawn following the English Channel Swim.  

Meg O'Doherty and Bill McConnell (Eileen in the foreground) approaching Dover at dawn following the English Channel Swim.  

Our team signature on the wall at Dover's famous White Horse Pub, where all English Channel crossers sign their names. 

Our team signature on the wall at Dover's famous White Horse Pub, where all English Channel crossers sign their names. 

Our entire family at Dover's White Horse Pub.  

Our entire family at Dover's White Horse Pub.  

A Long Swim has enjoyed many other successes since then. Meghan O’Doherty has managed the crew for all of the swims, including the New York Triple Crown Swim.  Not having her for future swims will leave us terribly handicapped. In fairness, the A Long Swim team is now as experienced as any marathon swimming crew anywhere in the world, but the challenge is to be able to handle the unexpected. At that, Meg was an absolute master.

My favorite image of Meg is one that is seared into my mind. We were in the latter stages of the English Channel swim. We had been at it for several hours and the waves had brutalized all of us. Most of the teammates, including Meg, had been violently ill. It was after midnight, and it was darker than anything that any of us had ever experienced. We were on a feeding stop, and I looked up to the top deck of the escort boat, and I saw Meg.

She was sitting at a flybridge, and was bundled up in a heavy jacket. On her arm, she had three digital watches, each of which were keeping track of different key statistics and intervals. She had the log book with a reading lamp in front of her, and was calling directions to everyone on the crew, all while keeping an eye on Eileen. She was Leonard Bernstein directing the symphony orchestra, and the harmony was perfect. As maestro, Meg had everything coordinated and under control.

Best of all, I could see her smile all the way from the water’s surface in the dead of night. It was the same smile I remembered from the 12 year old girl I had met so many years before. She was obviously having the time of her life, and she turned to me in the water to ask how I was doing. I don’t have any idea what I said, but what I remember was that smile and her sparkling eyes and how reassured they made me feel.

Those sparkling eyes got us across the English Channel. It is those sparkling eyes that will make me smile every time I think of her. The world will be dimmer without that sparkle, but we are so grateful that we were able to have Meghan in our family as long as we did.

Bon voyage, dear friend. We love you and we will miss you like crazy. There will never be anyone like you.  

Meg's funeral information as follows: 

Memorial visitation will be 4-8pm, Friday, January 6, 2017 at Davenport Family Funeral Home, 149 W. Main St (Lake-Cook) Barrington.

Mass will be 11am, Saturday, January 7 at St. Benedict Catholic Church, 2215 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, where there will be visitation from 10:30am until the mass.

In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to Meghan’s daughter, Eileen, for her future education and care. Checks payable to: Eileen O'Doherty Care and Education Fund, c/o Barrington Bank and Trust Company, 201 S Hough St, Barrington, Illinois 60010.

Here's one more video of Meg in charge on the New York Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and a shot of Meg & Eileen in England.  

Meg and Eileen in London.  

Meg and Eileen in London.  

A Long Swim Welcome Home Land Party

Welcome home our swimmer, Doug McConnell and our support kayaker, Don Macdonald on Thursday, September 8, 6:00pm, Francesca's in Barrington, Illinois.  Hosted by Phillips Menswear of Barrington, our guys will be interviewed by Terry Owens and the audience will be allowed questions and answers.  Recovered and rested, hear first hand what they saw and what it was like to swim in truly wild and open ocean.

Open water swimming, and open water marathon swimming, is the fastest growing sport in the world and these men are pioneers.  Hear stories from the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Circumnavigation of Manhattan Island and, now, the Ka'iwi Channel.  Also, you will be able to see a selection of the most beautiful open water swimming photographs in the world.  

All are welcome, swimmers and nonswimmers, adults and children.  Sign up here! 

Douglas McConnell is available for public speaking events.  

Questions and comments may be directed to Susan McConnell.  

A Long Swim - Ka'iwi Channel - Summary of Victory

On July 31st A Long Swim Team swam, kayaked, celebrated and worried across Hawaii’s Ka’iwi Channel (a/k/a the Channel of Bones) for what added up to 32 miles and 16+ hours. A Long Swim is a nonprofit with the mission of raising awareness and funds for collaborative ALS research through open water swimming.  

Parts of the day were filled with some of the most incredible swimming I’ve ever experienced in my life.  The open ocean is vast and clean.  The water is a blue that is breathtakingly beautiful and crystal clear.  The salinity is so high that you float like a cork, and you’ve always got your eyes open for a creature that could be higher than you on the food chain.  Part of the time we had the waves and currents at our backs and we had swimming speeds of up to 3 miles per hour.

We started the swim a little before 2:00 in the morning to take advantage of falling wind speeds.  By 6:00 pm, as we approached Oahu, the waves and currents were pushing us away from our goal.  After fighting the current for a long time, we did the simple math; the outgoing current had slowed our progress to a crawl, and the window to reach land in the daylight was closing rapidly.

The swim of the Ka’iwi Channel is not a swim you should try to land at night.  The eastern shore of Oahu has just a couple of sand beaches, and the rest is sharp volcanic rocks or sheer walls.  We were within a half-mile of Oahu; it looked so close, I thought I could throw a baseball and hit dry land.  As we realized that we could not safely land the swim, we terminated the swim and I got in the escort boat.  Susan McConnell, Don Macdonald and our boat pilot, Matt Buckman, made the right call.  Every day, Mother Nature (and her surrogate, the Ka’iwi Channel) is in ultimate control.  Some days, the Channel will let you across.  July 31st was not one of those days.   Our team was frustrated, mad, and some cried.

This is a new experience for me.  In more than 50 years as a competitive swimmer, I have never failed to make it to the finish line.  I reminded our team of how lucky we are; while we didn’t get the chance to climb up on that beach, we have the opportunity to get up and fight again.  Whether it is the Ka’iwi Channel or some other swim, there is no shortage of marathon swims around the world.  But the ones we were swimming for – those with ALS – don’t get second chances.  They lose a fight every single day as ALS robs them of more and more on their way to their own personal shipwreck.  A little perspective often helps when you’re feeling a little sorry for yourself. 

We think that thousands were watching the tracker, provided by MarathonSwimmers.org. We know that thousands were cheering on Facebook. 

During the swim itself, Susan was actively posting photographs and videos on Facebook and other social media sites, and people loved it.  The technology and photography proved that open water swimming could be a spectator sport.  We felt very fortunate to be able to communicate to all corners of the globe, and come together in a blue open ocean in the middle of nowhere. 

We’ve yet to count the donations, but we can tell you that significant amounts came in during the actual swim.  More than once, the news of people opening their hearts (and wallets) was a big lift that kept us going.  The fundraising side of this will be a whole separate report, but we can tell you wholeheartedly – it will go to collaborative ALS research.  We know the success of teamwork and we want to promote that in the research that we fund.  Donations may still be made here or in person at Phillips Menswear in Barrington, Illinois. 

The next few weeks will be used for healing and getting back to work at our real jobs.  Our minds are already reeling with what the next swim might look like, so stay tuned.  And if there’s one thing we learned on this Ka’iwi Channel swim, it’s to keep the faith. 

We will be back with a full report on the experience. 

It’s import to mention the following people/organizations that made this swim possible:

Our Hawaii Team: 

Linda Kaiser - Hawaii Channel Advisor

Matt Buckman - Boat Pilot

 DeRoy - Hawaii Water Guide

Our Crew Team: 

Don Macdonald - Coach and Kayaker

Susan McConnell -  Photographer, Videographer, Communications

Gordy McConnell -  Navigation, Statistician, Nutrition

Ashley McConnell - Navigation, Statistician, Nutrition

Stan McConnell - Navigation, Statistician, Nutrition

Our Sponsors:

Medtronic

Phillips Menswear

Raynor Hawaii Overhead Doors

McConnell & Associates

E-Shark Force

Carson Stoga Communications

D&W Finepack

Marathon Swimmers 

Infinit

Money and Collaboration Drive the Momentum of ALS Research

A Long Swim was built around ALS, and even borrowed the acronym for our name.  This has been a big week for ALS.  Research announcements are coming fast and furious, and it seems like a breakthroughs are being made every few days.  After being closely involved with the ALS research world for many years, this is a dizzying – and thrilling – pace.

It was an almost karmic coincidence that, on the very day our team completed the English Channel swim, there came an announcement from Northwestern that the common cause of ALS had been discovered.  And now, this week, as we prepare to swim the Ka’iwi Channel, comes groundbreaking announcements from the collaborative MinE Project which is funded by, of all things, open water swimming projects as well as the Ice Bucket Challenge.

There are two subtexts about most of the articles and papers announcing these discoveries; money and collaboration.  Much of the money, of course, came from the avalanche of donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer of 2014.  It was lightning-in-a-bottle, and raised more than $160 million for ALS in six weeks.  It was less than two years ago, and already these advancements in studies on DNA, genetic mapping, motor neurons and stem cells are emerging.  With total funding raised of $350,000 or so, A Long Swim is not in the league with the Ice Bucketeers, but donations from you, our teammates, have been rolling in and we will gladly “swim in the wake” of this tremendous momentum.  It is a good time to be involved with ALS research, and progress on all of these fronts can only lead to good things. 

The other message on ALS research is the importance of collaboration.  Scientists committed to ALS are now sharing with one another, not just within a research center, but with like-minded colleagues all over the world.  A project at Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, can hand off data and findings to Oslo and Amsterdam, that can hand it off to Johannesburg and Tokyo, that can hand it back to Chicago.  The sun never sets on collaborative ALS research and, now that those projects are fully funded, the process just accelerates. 

If A Long Swim has learned nothing else from our marathon swims, it is that teamwork is a critical ingredient for success, even in an undertaking that looks – on the surface – like an individual endeavor.  If teamwork is the lesson, then teamwork is what we support.  Collaborative ALS research is the solution, and A Long Swim is committed to supporting it.

Donate to A Long Swim here.

Watch our progress on Facebook here.

Track the Ka'iwi Channel Swim here. 

The Ka'iwi Channel - Tomorrow We Go

Patient Teammates - 

 Assuming there is not a change in plans, the A Long Swim team will start our swim of the Ka’iwi Channel on Saturday, July 30, at around 8:00 p.m. local time.  Hawaii Standard Time is three hours behind the West Coast, and five hours behind Chicago.

 The starting beach is on the western shore of Molokai, and the finish line is on the eastern shore of Oahu, 27-miles away across open ocean.  Our plan is to swim into the night, through the night, and into the next day.  Our hope is to try to land the swim in the early afternoon on Sunday.  We are expecting an 18-hour swim. We hope our window is open that long. 

All of our swims are according to English Channel Rules.  Speedo, Cap & Goggles. No wetsuits. No touching the boat. No touching a human. No getting out. Start on dry land and end on dry land. 

 

Control the Controllables

 This swim has been a long time in coming, and a starting line has never looked so good to me. 

 It has been two years of training, two years of planning, two years of learning and two years of hoping.  The training takes place early in the morning, in mostly Lake Zurich, before I get on the train to head to Chicago.  Weekends we train in Lake Michigan.  I moved my investment banking practice into Metropolitan Capital just after the 1st of the year and it was a great move. I regularly remind my wife that I am a banker first, a swimmer second. 

In terms of planning a marathon swim, the challenge is to control what you can.  As my coach, mentor and close friend, Marcia Cleveland, once explained, “For everything you can control, there are a hundred things you can’t.  Get used to it.  Get comfortable with it.”  We did everything we could do to stack the deck in our favor.  We picked the latter half of July because it is typically the time of the year when the winds and seas are not as rough. We picked the last week of July because it was after the full moon, when tides are at their peak.  Hawaiian swimming icon, Linda Kaiser, has been advising us since we arrived and we have enjoyed and appreciated her involvement and wise counsel. 

 What we hadn’t contemplated – and certainly couldn’t control – was Tropical Storm Darby.  Shortly after we arrived, Darby was all that everyone could talk about, in part because it had just been downgraded from a full-on hurricane.  When the eye of the storm roared through the Islands, it was a terrifically violent with 60 knots of wind and 15 inches of rain.  The bigger issue with Darby was the aftermath, where the pressure dome kept the conditions at 8 – 10 foot confused seas.  It was not safe for the boat crew, it would have been out of the question for a kayaker, and certainly would have been suboptimal for the swimmer.  The A Long Swim team sat and waited. 

 

The Ka’iwi Channel

The Ka’iwi Channel (pronounced “kah-EVE-ee”) is Hawaiian for the Channel of Bones, and is considered one of the most challenging swims in the world.  In addition to the 27-mile distance, it is known for its relentless trade winds.  In Hawaii, the trade winds blow from east to west, and 20 knots is considered a light-air day.  The waves come in two flavors; the swell (which is driven by the enormity of the ocean, and are slow undulations of four to six feet), and wind waves, which are an additional four to six feet on top.  If they are moving in a coordinated direction, the swimmer is able to lock into the rhythm of the sea and move in concert with the waves.  If they are not, the waves make it like the swimmer is caught in a washing machine.  It is very difficult to maintain a stroke cadence and is extraordinarily tiring.  The washing machine effect is something we felt for seven hours on our English Channel swim. 

 Then, there’s the wildlife; jellyfish and sharks.  Jellyfish abound in the Ka’iwi Channel and, with the warming of all of the oceans, the species of jellyfish that can really do damage have found their way to the Hawaiian Islands.  Jellyfish torment swimmers, and I have learned that I am allergic to their toxin.  At best, multiple jellyfish stings can make for a long day; at worse, they can be life-threatening.  Jellyfish are photo-phobic, which means that they come out at night.  There is nothing a swimmer can do to protect themselves from jellyfish, and they become just one more painful thing to be spooked about in the dark. 

 As for the sharks, they have become an issue.  Swimmers have been attempting the Ka’iwi Channel swim since the 1960s, and there haven’t been any shark incidents until a month ago.  In the last few weeks, two swimmers have been pulled from the Ka’iwi Channel because of shark activity.  We viewed the recent shark incidents as a bit of a wake-up call, and upgraded our shark deterrent technology.  We will be using a device called E-SharkForce, which disrupts the electrical sensors that sharks use to find prey.   E-SharkForce has become a sponsor of A Long Swim, we spent time with the inventor, and it’s a great relationship.

 With all of these challenges, perhaps it is no surprise that the Ka’iwi Channel is not a frequent choice for marathon swimmers.  Only 38 solo swimmers have completed the swim, compared with numbers like 1,600 for the English Channel.  A little comparison for mountain climbers?  About 5,000 people have summited Mt. Everest. 

 

ALS

 A Long Swim was built around ALS, and even borrowed the acronym for our name.  This has been a big week for ALS.  Research announcements are coming fast and furious, and it seems like a breakthroughs are being made every few days.  After being closely involved with the ALS research world for a few years, this is a dizzying – and thrilling – pace.

 There are two subtexts about most of the articles and papers announcing these discoveries; money and collaboration.  Much of the money, of course, came from the avalanche of donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer of 2014.  It was lightning-in-a-bottle, and raised more than $160 million for ALS in six weeks.  It was less than two years ago, and already these advancements in studies on DNA, genetic mapping, motor neurons and stem cells are emerging.  With total funding raised of $350,000 or so, A Long Swim is not in the league with the Ice Bucketeers, but donations from you, our teammates, have been rolling in and we will gladly “swim in the wake” of this tremendous momentum.  It is a good time to be involved with ALS research, and progress on all of these fronts can only lead to good things. 

 The other message on ALS research is the importance of collaboration.  Scientists committed to ALS are now sharing with one another, not just within a research center, but with like-minded colleagues all over the world.  A project at Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, can hand off data and findings to Oslo and Amsterdam, that can hand it off to Johannesburg and Tokyo, that can hand it back to Chicago.  The sun never sets on collaborative ALS research and, now that those projects are fully funded, the process just accelerates. 

 If A Long Swim has learned nothing else from our marathon swims, it is that teamwork is a critical ingredient for success, even in an undertaking that looks – on the surface – like an individual endeavor.  If teamwork is the lesson, then teamwork is what we support.  Collaborative ALS research is the solution, and A Long Swim is committed to supporting it.

 

The A Long Swim Team

 Speaking of teamwork, the A Long Swim team is the best in the world. 

·      Susan, of course, manages the whole thing. A marketing genius, she will entertain you with photos and videos on the A Long Swim Facebook page.

·      Ever-vigilant Don Macdonald is kayaking and will be my eyes and ears, especially since we’ll be swimming through the night.  He is fearless and smart.  Kayaking in the Ka’iwi Channel is borderline unmanageable, so Don will have his hands full. 

·      Our son, Gordy (MVP of the English Channel swim) will be onboard for managing feedings and keeping his eye on me.  In the English Channel, every single time I looked at the boat I saw Gordy standing on the rail.  Every. Single. Time.

·      Our daughter, Ashley will be there for stroke-counting, log-keeping and Twitter feeds (@ALongSwim1). 

·      Our nephew Stan will be along, too, pinch-hitting for all of the tasks, as it is never clear who will need help.  This is Stan’s maiden and unexpected voyage and we appreciate him stepping up.

 Because the Ka’iwi Channel is known for its waves, it is also known for crew sea-sickness, which is not only unpleasant but just doesn’t go away.  Hence, the importance of cross-training.

 

The A Long Swim Support Team

 People, Groups and More have stepped up to support us.  Not in any particular order, they are:

 Phillips Menswear of Barrington, Illinois – Peter Yankala has single handedly rallied the troops in our town.  Our apparel sponsor, he has designed the coolest zippies and tee shirts ever.  Visit his store, make a donation, and get yours – new ones have arrived.

 Bob Lee – My Rabbi.  He has the best advice in the world and I appreciate the way he always answers his phone and takes as much time with me as needed.

 My Father – Dr. David McConnell, who was taken from us too early by ALS, and is always present in my mind and in my life. He is my ultimate role model.

Our corporate sponsors, who are stepping up all the time, including a new one, Hawaii Raynor Overhead Doors, as of today.  Our sponsors are:

Medtronic

Phillips Menswear

Raynor Hawaii Overhead Doors

McConnell & Associates

E-Shark Force

Carson Stoga Communications

D&W Finepack

 Infinit

Bridge Athletic

 

Gratitude

 Just getting to the starting line for a swim like the Ka’iwi Channel is a big undertaking, and as I find myself there, I am overwhelmed by the reminder of how fortunate I am.  Counting my blessings would be impossible; by comparison, counting my strokes is a piece of cake.

 Over two years, the hours and miles of training, the planning and the hand-wringing over weather maps; they are all done.  There is nothing we can do about those things now.  We will find out very soon if the training was adequate and if the other decisions were correct.  Now, we have to focus on getting to the other shore.

 There was a line from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, that typifies how if feel right now.  The line was from Red:

            “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.  I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man on the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.  I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

 Now is the time to clear our minds, get our heads on straight, dig deep and swim far.

 See you on the beach. 

Follow along on the A Long Swim Facebook Page here.

Follow along on the A Long Swim Tracker here. 

 Donate to A Long Swim here.

 

Announcing A Long Swim Sponsor E-Shark Force

E-Shark Force is the latest in electronic shark deterrent technology.  Invented by Wilson Vivano in 2005, he has perfected it over the last 11 years.  The device is wearable, affordable and used by professional swimmers, surfers, stand up paddlers, snorkelers, scuba divers, and explorers as well as recreationalists.  It keeps humans safe AND it keeps sharks safe too.  Our team met with Wilson in Hawaii and we're confident that this is the right technology for the conditions of our swim.  

World Class Open Water Marathon Swimmer, Adam Walker, uses E-Shark Force’s technology.  “I am passionate about the safety and conservation of sharks.  I have worn the E-Shark Force unit across some of the most shark infested swims in the world.  During the 26 mile Ka'iwi Channel Swim in Hawaii, it kept me feeling safe in the 17 hours of swimming, even though I had two separate shark signings.” 

Doug McConnell will wear this one pound device around his ankle for the duration of the Ka'iwi Channel Swim, day AND night.  "After years of no shark activity, the Ka'iwi Channel recently has had a series of curious tiger sharks that we just as soon not deal with. We believe E-Shark Force is the technology to use to address this challenge."  

We welcome E-Shark Force as an A Long Swim sponsor! 

Ten Years Ago Today, ALS Took My Father

Ten years ago today, ALS took my father, Dave McConnell.  He was 75 years old.  He battled ALS for almost 14 years, and my mother was his primary caregiver.  That morning, she tells me that as she had helped him with his morning ritual, he said, “Thank you.”  Then, he closed his eyes for the last time.  It was over.

It was the day that we all knew was coming, but all of us were still caught off-guard.  Anyone who has dealt with ALS knows the outcome, but they don’t know when it will come or how agonizing the end will be.  Not knowing is just one element of the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that ALS leaves on your doorstep.  My father’s simple and characteristic departure was far less dreadful than we had feared, but the feeling of powerlessness was profound.

My father and I were always close.  As I think of him now, it is his sense of humor that survives him.  He had kind of a smart-ass, sarcastic, I-think-he’s-kidding-but-I’m-not-sure sense of humor that entertained him as much as it entertained those around him.  It was always spontaneous, was often delightfully off-color, but was never at someone else’s expense.  Everyone who knew him – and everybody knew him – loved being around him.

When he was diagnosed with ALS, all of us were pretty clueless about the disease beyond vaguely knowing about the baseball player for which the disease takes its name.  “Actuarially, within three to five years, I will suffocate or starve to death,” he told us in a matter-of-fact tone.  My first and most crushing thought was disappointment that, during those three to five years, my kids wouldn’t be old enough to really get to know him.  They wouldn’t know what he thought was important, and they wouldn’t know his sense of humor.  As it turned out, he far out-lived the original prognosis, and my children really were able to receive that much.  They will always remember him in that dreadful wheelchair, but at least they will remember the important stuff. 

Every person I have met whose life has been touched by ALS makes reference to that feeling of powerlessness.  People articulate it differently, but it is what they feel and with which they try to reconcile.  The cascading unfairness of the disease makes it something that is irreconcilable, so the frustration builds.  People’s reaction to that frustration varies.  Some grieve their loved one, and move on with their lives.  Others grieve and support ALS charities; for some, the support to ALS charities becomes a lifelong mission. 

For us, we swim.

Oh, we did all that other stuff, too.  We grieved, we cried, and we laughed at the stories that he had told and the ones we knew would make him howl.  Like everyone, we wanted to do more, so we started using swimming to support ALS because it was the best way we knew to defy it.  As a neurodegenerative disease, ALS slowly robs the sufferer of the ability to use their muscles.  Swimmers, on the other hand, use all of their muscles to power themselves through the unnatural medium of the water and they need to be able to breathe deeply.  Because of that, swimming is the perfect nose-thumb and bird-flip to ALS. 

We swim because we can.  We swim because they cannot.  

ALS is highly unpredictable.  Often, the larger muscles of the arms and legs are stricken first, but the muscles required for breathing and digesting are often afflicted and rendered useless.  One of the special and ironic cruelties of ALS is the people who are diagnosed are the ones for whom the loss of those muscle groups is most associated with their own gifts.  The runner who can no longer walk.  The singer that can’t utter a word. 

In my father’s case, it was a former three-sport athlete who found himself in a wheelchair and became unable to lift his arms to even feed himself.  As I was growing up, he was a practicing veterinarian, and he used his physical power every day.  When I was very young, he worked with a lot of horses and cattle, and I remember him moving reluctant dairy cows with just a lean of his shoulder.  In later years, it was all “small” animals, though the Great Danes and St. Bernards that he lifted onto examining tables were hardly petite.  Every little boy grows up thinking that his dad is the strongest guy in the world; in my case, it was really true.

After ALS exacted its price, the feeling of powerlessness continued.  We wanted to do something, knowing that other families were watching the same slow-motion shipwreck that we had witnessed.  For me, swimming had been a constant; from the time I started as a six-year old with our local Park District swim team, through my years swimming for the University of Illinois, swimming had always been part of my life.  The more we thought of it, the more we realized that the stark contrast between ALS and swimming was a perfect fit.  

The swimming that we initially set about to accomplish has been far exceed by the reality.  We borrowed the acronym of ALS to create “A Long Swim,” and it has taken us to swims like the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, Tampa Bay, and around the island of Manhattan in New York.  A Long Swim has hosted some lake swims that have attracted more than 250 swimmers.  In the process, we have raised more than $350,000 for ALS research that has made A Long Swim into one of the top open water swims for charity in history.  

We started A Long Swim after my dad died, so he never saw what we were up to.  The irony of it – almost in the sarcastic commentary that he would make – is that distance swimming was the most boring thing he could think of.  “What’s next, competitive paint-drying?” he said after suffering as a spectator through a 1,000 freestyle when I was in college.  If he were here, I think he would tease us about it, and he would make jokes about it, but I think he would be really pleased.  No matter how boring he thought it was, he would be fiercely proud of us for getting out there and doing something – anything – about something for which we felt so passionate.

Today, the A Long Swim team finds itself on the Island of Hawaii, waiting for the opportunity to begin our biggest challenge yet.  For two years, we have been training for a swim across the Ka’iwi Channel, the twenty-seven mile channel that separates Molokai from Oahu.  Of all the things that went into the preparation for this swim, one of the hundreds of things that we couldn’t anticipate or control is Tropical Storm Darby that is roaring through the Hawaiian Islands right now.  Darby has been downgraded from a hurricane, but for Midwesterners, even tropical storm numbers like 65-knot winds and 10-15 inches of rain are quite a show of Mother Nature’s muscle.  The aftermath of the storm (and storms Esther and Frank right behind Darby) may be such that the Ka’iwi Channel cannot be safely swum right now. 

If that is the outcome, we will be disappointed but we will not be deterred.  A Long Swim is bigger than any single swim, including the Ka’iwi Channel.  Storms don’t last forever and ALS doesn’t have to either. 

Dave McConnell, we miss you like crazy, but are glad that you left behind your sense of humor.  This one’s for you.

(Written by Doug McConnell, Founder of A Long Swim.) 

To donate to ALS Research through www.ALongSwim.org click here. 

To follow this project daily on Facebook click here.  

 

Medtronic + A Long Swim = An Unstoppable Team

If it weren’t for Medtronic, there would be no A Long Swim.  A Long Swim uses open water marathon swimming as a vehicle to raise awareness and funds for ALS research.

Doug McConnell, in his preparation to swim the English Channel in 2011, developed a badly herniated disc in his spine, between vertebrae C6 and C7.  Three different orthopedic surgeons recommended spinal fusion, the gold standard solution.  The problem?  The recipient of the spinal fusion faces a very long recovery, loses 10% of their mobility, and faces increased risks of disc disease above and below the original site.  McConnell was concerned that, if he went in the direction of a spinal fusion, he wouldn’t be able to swim the English Channel.

With the help of Chicago’s Northwestern Hospital, McConnell was introduced to what was at the time a new device called a Prestige Disc from Medtronic.  The Prestige disc is a disc replacement, and is designed as a specialty hinge to allow the recipient to regain full mobility.

McConnell was very pleased with the outcome, and acknowledges that his results may not be typical.  He returned home the same day of surgery and began a physical therapy regimen after a few days.  McConnell had been a competitive swimmer through college, and was able to get back to swimming training in six weeks.  Eighteen months later, he was able to conquer the English Channel and become just the 48th person over the age of 50 to have done so.  His wife calls McConnell her “Bionic Boyfriend.”

Medtronic heard about this patient success story, and was enormously supportive.  The Company matched the donations of others up to $50,000 in 2011, and the A Long Swim Team was able to raise an additional $25,000 for a total of $125,000 for ALS research.  The A Long Swim team continued with these marathon swimming challenges by swimming swims of the length of Tampa Bay and the Catalina Channel in California.  In 2014, McConnell swam a loop around Manhattan Island in New York, and Medtronic was there again, this time with $40,000 to help the cause. 

“We have learned in very plain terms that marathon swims can only be accomplished with the right team, working together to achieve a goal.  When we talk about the members of A Long Swim Team, we always include Medtronic.  In addition to being such a grateful recipient of the Prestige disc, our friends at Medtronic have supported our cause in a really grand way,” McConnell says.  “I have had this replacement disc in my neck for more than six years now, and I am completely unaware that it is there.  It lets me focus on my training and our fundraising, which is the element of A Long Swim that is really going to make a difference in people’s lives.”    

The A Long Swim team is now in Hawaii awaiting the start of his next challenge.  Sometime in the next few days, Doug McConnell will be swimming the Ka’iwi Channel, the 27 stretch of open ocean between the islands of Molakai and Oahu.  “I’m in the best shape of my life,” says the 58-year old investment banker and open water swimmer, “And I credit Medtronic and their device that has kept my spine strong.”  

McConnell expects his opportunity to tackle the Ka’iwi Channel to open up after a tropical storm moves through the area.  You can track his swim here, watch live reporting on the A Long Swim Facebook page here, and you can donate to collaborative ALS research through ALongSwim.org here. 

A Long Swim team uses marathon swimming to raise awareness and funding for ALS research.  Doug McConnell was inspired to begin his quest as a result of his father dying from ALS.  Doug often says that his arms and legs work just fine, and he can breath deeply, and he will use those to next swim the Ka’iwi Channel. 

Doug McConnell swimming through giant swells during his English Channel swim.  

 

 

Aloha - A Long Swim Team Arrives in Hawaii to a Full Moon

After two years of training and planning, our team is arriving in Oahu, Hawaii.  The full moon that we saw at 5:00am tells us we're on the right side and the tides will be opening up our window, on or after July 24.  Track the swim here and watch the A Long Swim Facebook page for live reporting.  

In the meantime, we're making our lists and checking them twice, exploring the island and its wildlife, watching the tidal charts, and cross training our crew.  

Donate to collaborative ALS research here! 

Thank you to our sponsors:  Phillips Menswear of Barrington, Illinois for being our apparel sponsor, Carson Stoga for being our PR and communications sponsor, OMO of Barrington for planning our awesome events, McConnell & Associates for their organizational strategies, eSharkForce for providing the shark deterrent technology, Medtronic, Inc., Infinit Nutrition and D&W Finepack.  

Why ALS?

Often called “Lou Gehrig’s disease” for the New York Yankees baseball icon, ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that slowly robs people of the ability to walk, speak and breathe. Most people live only 2 to 5 years from diagnosis. Approximately 1,000 people in Illinois and 35,000 people in the U.S. are living with ALS at any given time, and another person is diagnosed every 90 minutes. The incidence of ALS is close to that of multiple sclerosis and four times that of muscular dystrophy.

ALS occurs throughout the world regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Men are affected slightly more frequently than women. It most commonly occurs between 40 and 70 years of age, although the disease can strike at any age. It is likely that there are several different causes of ALS. Approximately 10 percent of all ALS cases are known to be caused by certain genetic factors and are called “familial ALS.” The remaining 90 percent of cases, called “sporadic ALS,” currently have no known cause.

Learn more about the Les Turner ALS Foundation at www.LesTurnerALS.org.  

Don Sammons - Swimming Coach, Life Coach

I got an email from my college swimming coach, Don Sammons, today, which follows.  My answer to him is below.

From: Don Sammons

Sent: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 9:49 AM
To: Doug McConnell
Subject: Manhattan Marathon

Hi Doug

RELAXED & FOCUSED.

Success is guaranteed!!!

How will you make it enjoyable?

Don

 

Don –

I have been thinking about you a lot in the last few days, as I recall that you occupied my thoughts heavily before our swims in Tampa Bay, the English Channel and the Catalina Channel.

Part of what I think about is captured in the note you sent this morning.  The words are friendly, challenging, encouraging, optimistic, and uplifting, all at once.  To think that you could accomplish all of that in 18 words is as typical a Don Sammons message as any I could think of.

The other part of what I think about with respect to you is far deeper than that.  I have learned so much from you.

I couldn’t even imagine the number of hours we spent together during the years that I was 17 – 21.  It was two workouts and the better part of five hours a day, six days a week, from late August until March.  It was weekend traveling to meets, or hosting meets in Champaign.  Oh, and then there were the summer workouts that consumed May, June and July, when I remember we sometimes even had three-a-day workouts.

During those hours, I learned from you about being an athlete, being a competitor and being a man.  So did my teammates, though not all of us learned willingly.  For every lesson we learned about keeping our elbows up or not breathing into the wall, we learned a hundred lessons about the value of hard work, of having and executing a plan, and of sharing successes and disappointments with teammates.

After I graduated from Illinois, obviously the amount of time we actually spent together fell dramatically but the lessons learned lingered on.  Through careers, families, challenges, and even back to swimming, I am never too far from a Don Sammons lesson.  My family has heard those lessons, my children have been immersed in those lessons, and even my colleagues have been exposed to those lessons.

Perhaps the best lesson of all is the one that I am reminded of when I contemplate A Long Swim, and that is to recognize the power that our minds have in determining what we do, who we are, and what we can accomplish.  As physically challenging as your three-a-day workouts were, the mental fortitude that was required was at least as rigorous.  The distances I swim in open water can be challenging – between waves, cold, dark and wildlife – but so much of it is the mental fortitude that I would not have if it hadn’t been for you.

I remember a conversation we had when we got together several weeks after our English Channel swim in 2011.  People always asked similar questions about the swim; again, waves, cold and dark being prominent among them, but you asked something completely different.

You – When did you know that you were going to make it across to France?  Did you ever question yourself?

Me – You know, I never did.  I knew we would make it across when I stepped into the water in England.  It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it to France.

You – (With fingers pointed at my temples) That’s because of right here.  You are mentally strong.  Powerful beyond measure.

Of course, what you didn’t realize is that the mental strength and the “powerful beyond measure” thing were all because of the lessons I learned from you.  If it hadn’t been for those lessons, there would have never been a Channel swim or any number of other things that have been great blessings in my life.  There is no possible way to adequately thank you for those, but I am grateful for them every day.

At the time, I was curious about your choice of the “powerful beyond measure” words, and they really stuck with me.  Then, I found a quote that perfectly captured them.  I don’t know if that is where you first heard them, but they really fit.  Check out something that Nelson Mandela said:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

Inadequacy.  Fear.  Light.  Darkness.  Powerful beyond measure.

That is the Don Sammons legacy that literally generations of University of Illinois swimmers carry with them, many without even realizing it.  On behalf of all of those swimmers, thank you.  We are in for a long one on Saturday in New York, and you will never be far from my thoughts.

My best to Marilyn.

Thanks

DPMc

The best part of Don’s letters to me are the endings.  Here are a few of my favorites from my collection:


Meet the Team - Susan

Susan and I met on a commuter train 34 years ago, and from the very first I was Gobsmacked by her creativity.  She was special then, and has become more special every day since.   I am, quite simply, the luckiest guy in the world because of her.

When I met Susan, she had just moved to Illinois from Northern New York.  I fell in love with her immediately.  She was unlike anyone I had ever met.  She was playful, yet intelligent.  She was hilarious, yet serious.  I have spent a lot of time around some pretty driven people, but Susan had a special drive that I hadn’t seen before.  I have often said that she is the most competitive nonathletic person I have ever met.  Susan competes with herself, and she gets things done against all odds.  She had her heart set on going to school at DePaul University, so she managed to land a job downtown that paid enough for an apartment and tuition, too.  When she finished her Bachelor’s, she was on such a roll that she earned a DePaul MBA with straight A’s.  I will never forget the look of accomplishment on her face when she proudly received her diploma, eight months pregnant with our first son, Mack.

When we decided to complete our family through adoption, I really saw what she was made of.  She took it on like she was running for Senator, using every resource available and she became an expert.  In short order, our house was filled with our beautiful children and I love them more than life itself.  Pulling together a successful adoption is a difficult task.  Having it happen three times is like making lightning strike on command.  Susan can make anything materialize.

She has a vision, but she also has that unique ability to make the vision into a reality.  When we bought a big, ho-hum house in the suburbs to fit all of these kids, she put pencil to paper and one year later, on a very tight budget, our house looked like we lived on Martha’s Vineyard.

Her vision is one of the reasons that her photography just works so well.  I can’t even count the number of times people have told me that “Susan just sees something that other people haven’t, and she makes it come to life in her photos.”  Our house and her studio are full of Susan’s beautiful pictures – lots of them are of our kids and friends, and of places we have visited – but some of them are of people we don’t even know.  They are just magnificent images and they brighten the environment by just being there.  “Surround yourself with beautiful things” is the real description of life with Susan.

When I started open water swimming, the conversation evolved to the possibility of swimming the English Channel.  I reminded her that the training alone would be a burden on our family, and that if she thought it was going to be too much, we would do something else.  Susan is not a swimmer and didn’t grow up with athletics, but she had the response that really stitched everything together: “If this is something that you think you can do, and is something that you want to do, then you probably ought to go do it.  As for our kids, they won’t have an opportunity like this ever again, so let’s make them the support crew.”  With that little stroke of genius, Susan has been the CEO of A Long Swim ever since.

I have often said that marathon swimming is the ultimate team sport.  The swimmer is the one who gets his name in the paper, but it is the team that makes it to the other shore.  In fact, without the team, the swimmer doesn’t even make it to the starting beach.  It seems that every sport has a nickname for the teammate whose performance is most essential to the difference between success and failure; the quarterback, the point guard, the anchor leg, the captain, the closer.  Marathon swimming doesn’t have a cutesy title for that person, so we will just call it “the Susan.”

Here’s a short list of what Susan does for A Long Swim:

  • Images and Videos.  She creates all of the beautiful photography that you see on the website, on facebook and in the media.  Open water swimming is a nichey little sport, to be sure, but Susan’s collection of photographs are among the best in the world.
  • Hip to be Doug.  She manages my social media with spunk and humor, which makes me seem much cooler than I really am.
  • Mother Hen.  During our swims, she knows when to offer words of encouragement, when to insulate me from issues on the boat, and when a little clowning around can really lighten the mood.  One of the challenges for many marathon swimmers is the difficulty of surrendering all control to someone else, with everything from when and what to eat, to providing information.  Susan is a very nurturing depend-on-me person (see “mother of four”) so she and I fall comfortably into the roles during these swims where she is the caretaker and I am dependent.
  • Fretting and Hand-Wringing.  Marathon swims are long, boring hours with lots of uncontrollable factors, some of which can be life-threatening.  With a bit of a vested interest in the swimmer, it is no wonder that these swims are physically and emotionally exhausting for Susan.  Two quick examples:
    • In the English Channel, the seas were pretty rough for several hours.  The kids were sick, and the deck was pitching so badly that they had to crawl from one side of the boat to another.  Susan was crawling over to something when the boat hit a particularly big wave.  She was thrown off balance, bonked her head on a post, and vomited.  She and Billy looked at each other, and said what became an oft-repeated line for the rest of the trip, “What are we doing here?  This is not good.”
    • In Catalina, Susan took a four-hour shift paddling the kayak in pitch black seas.  I was pretty busy, but I remember how enveloping that darkness was.  At one point, I rolled over to pull a jellyfish off my goggles, and she stopped singing for a minute to say to me, “I have never been so scared in my life.  If a shark comes, he had better take me in one bite, because I am not doing this ever again.”

Here’s a little video that Susan took while kayaking in the middle of the night in the Catalina Channel:

Quite simply, everything goes right when Susan is around, and nothing goes right when she’s not.  So, I will close the same way I opened; I am, quite simply, the luckiest guy in the world because of her.

Meet the Team - Bob Lee and Peter Yankala

Two members of the A Long Swim team have never been on a crew, or paddled a kayak, or have even been to one of our open water swims.  And yet, their contributions are indispensable to the effort, as they show quite literally every day.

Bob Lee and Peter Yankala are Barrington guys.  Actually, Peter lives in Chicago and reverse commutes to his business in Barrington, but they are fixtures here nonetheless.

One could accurately call Bob Lee a local philanthropist, but that wouldn’t fully describe the difference that Bob makes when he devotes some of his time, treasure and thoughts to a charity.  Bob is 72 years old, and has the energy to run circles around volunteers half his age.  He is the guy who writes checks to so many good causes, but then also arrives an hour early to the meeting, “just in case you maybe needed someone to set up the chairs or something.”  He been Barrington’s Citizen of the Year once but he should really win that award every year.

One could accurately call Peter Yankala a really creative and generous guy.  His blog Why I Like Chicago has taken the city by storm and the blog’s Facebook page is literally on fire.  His blog and Facebook page are homes to his amazing photography created in Chicago from the balcony of his home “on the 64th floor.”   He is always ready to chip in to help local organizations, to the point where Quintessential Barrington Magazine recently named him as its Quintessential Person for the summer issue.        (You have to read this!) Peter is everywhere, knows everyone, and really has a knack for bringing creative ideas into reality.

Peter and Bob have played such essential roles with the A Long Swim team that they really need an introduction to the rest of the world.

Peter Yankala

 

Peter Yankala directing at the photo shoot where, dressed in a tux, I jumped in the lake.

Peter’s business is Phillips Men’s Wear, (www.PhillipsMensWear.com)  which is the high-end men’s clothing store that so many towns had one or two generations ago.  Unfortunately, most of the other stores like Phillips were casualties of big chain stores and clothing stores that specialize in inexpensive Chinese imports.  Phillips has really bucked the trend by developing a highly dedicated clientele that have obviously become as much friends of the highly attentive staff as they are customers.

Peter has been a good friend of Bob’s for a long time, and Peter has wholeheartedly supported charitable work.  He seems to have a special place in his heart, however, for ALS and the Les Turner Foundation.  As a month-long lead-up to the annual Barrington Tag Day weekend for the Foundation, Peter had a donation bucket in front of the cash register in his store and managed to extract money from a large percentage of his customers.  By the time Tag Days actually arrived, the bucket at Phillips had no less than $1,500 in it, including a number of $50 and $100 bills.  Clearly, Peter is very persuasive.

So, along comes A Long Swim and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.  Peter and his colleagues at Phillips knew that the beneficiary was the Les Turner Foundation, and they turned their considerable creativity and ideas toward us.  They have had banners about MIMS made that are in store windows all over town.  They sent a hundred hand-written letters to top customers alerting them to A Long Swim, they are active on Facebook, and it sure seems to be working.  The money is really rolling in.

A couple of weeks ago on a Friday, Susan told me about an idea she had heard from Peter.

Susan:   “He wants to get some photographs of you swimming over at Lake Zurich, maybe diving off the pier or something.”

Me:         “That’s fine, just send him over one of these mornings and he can take whatever pictures he wants.”

Susan:   “He seems pretty eager to get going – do you think you could go over there late today?”

Me:         “Yeah, probably.  I still don’t see what the big deal is.”

Susan:   “Oh, I forgot to mention, he wants you to wear a Phillips Men’s Wear  tuxedo.”

And so, a few hours later, we found ourselves on our way over to Lake Zurich.  I was in a tuxedo, and Susan was carrying every camera she owns.  The whole thing was delightfully silly, and between Peter, Susan and Bob all taking pictures, we got some great shots and short videos.

Peter continues to bend over backward for A Long Swim.  He had a number of t-shirts printed up announcing the MIMS swim, and is alerting everyone on Facebook that they can come into the store to grab one, in exchange for a $100 donation.  As always, Peter’s creative idea became a reality, and he has collected more than $2,000 in less than a week.  I have always said that, if you are the teammate in the Speedo, the A Long Swim team is a great team to be on.

Guys like Peter Yankala make it that way. 

Bob Lee

Bob built local notoriety like no one else could.  Starting more than 10 years ago, Bob came up with the idea of the “Ride for 3 Reasons,” and rode a bicycle around the United States in three separate trips.  The last of those trips was the bicycle trek he took from Vancouver to Tijuana, so “Three Reasons” became “Three Countries” on that trip.  Bob has supported the American Cancer Society, Hospice and the Les Turner ALS Foundation with his rides, and between them he has raised more than $1.5 million.

You can’t think of Bob without thinking of Anne, his equally energetic wife.  The causes they support aren’t just “Bob’s thing,” but ones that they support together with such great vigor.  Anne is always there, setting up the metaphorical chairs with a smile on her face and a quick, infectious laugh.  Bob and Anne have won every philanthropy award that our town can provide, but the work that they have done would entitle them to so much more.  Susan and I have become very close friends with Bob and Anne and, to borrow a line from “Wicked,” the relationship has definitely changed us for good.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that when we were thinking of including a charitable component to A Long Swimthat I called on Bob.  He had developed the perfect model for me to follow, and I was eager to borrow all elements of it that I could.  I didn’t know the first thing about what we were doing, but I knew that Bob could guide and counsel me on the process.  There are a couple of things I remember from that first coffee meeting we had, all of which ended up being true.  The most important was his observation, “You have a lot of training to do, and you have a business to run.  You don’t have time to be a full-time fundraiser, too.”  Because we had Bob in our corner, the fundraising became more successful than it would have been, probably by an order of magnitude.

Bob made sure that we had the right audience with the right folks at Les Turner Foundation.  In our very first meeting, I explained to them that nothing A Long Swim could do would ever match what Bob Lee had done, and that I didn’t want them to be disappointed.  Without hesitation, they embraced the idea of marathon swimming with gusto.

Bob is one of those guys who join people together.  It starts by him knowing just about everyone you can imagine (the rule of ‘six degrees of separation’ does not hold true with Bob; with him, it is more like two degrees.  Tops.) and it ends with him making introductions that prove fruitful for everyone.  The guy is just remarkable that way.

Speaking of gusto, Bob is going to join us in New York.  He will, once again, be riding a bicycle, this time around Manhattan Island.  He will be taking photos all the way along, and I already know that he will capture some element of New York City that none of us have ever seen.

Through every step of the way since that fateful coffee meeting in 2009, Bob has been my mentor, my sounding board, and a bottomless well of good and clever ideas.  As a charter member of the A Long Swim team, Bob deserves every bit of respect and admiration that we have.

I know that I am not alone when I say, “When I grow up, I want to be Bob Lee.”



Meet the Team - Don Macdonald

When you look back at all of this marathon swimming craziness, it was all Don Macdonald’s idea.

Don and I were well acquainted through Masters Swimming.  I was participating in some local and regional swims of two to five miles, and really enjoying myself.  One summer evening back in 2009, Don and Jennifer invited Susan and me over for a glass of wine.  We were enjoying ourselves on their back deck, when Don saw some numbers written in magic marker on my arm.

The following conversation took place:

  • Don:    Oh, were you in a swim today?
  • Me:     Yeah, it was a five-miler up in Minneapolis.
  • Don:    How did it go?  Were you ok with your time?
  • Me:     Not particularly.  Lake Minnetonka was so windy and wavy today, we might as well have been swimming in the English Channel.
  • Don:    The English Channel?  I’ve always wanted to swim the English Channel!
  • Me:     No kidding?  I have too!

And so, the conversation began.  Don opened a second bottle of wine, and by the time it was gone, we were convinced that we were headed to England.

We knew almost nothing about what we were imagining, but we learned.  We would drive back and forth to swims and talk in the car.  Both Don and I are list-makers, but he actually follows through on them.  As an engineer, he is extraordinarily smart, organized, inquisitive and patient, all of which served him well as he researched the nuances of swimming the English Channel.

Along the way, people often made the observation, “Wow; Don and Doug.  McConnell and Macdonald.  Heh, heh, you guys pretty much have the same name; which one is which?”  Susan would quickly clarify, “Oh, that’s easy.  Don’s the good-looking one!”

We trained like possessed creatures from 2009 – 2011, always the same workouts, together when schedules would allow it.  If we didn’t swim together, we would find time to compare notes about different workouts and even individual sets.  While we had both grown up as swimmers, neither of us had put ourselves on the path of training for a specific event for which the outcome was so uncontrollable and uncertain.

We built a base of progressively more difficult swims, knowing that each of them would be learning experiences on our way to tackle the English Channel.  Together, we swam:

  • Boston Light in August 2010 – eight miles in 54 degree water
  • English Channel Qualifying Swim in October 2010 – minimum of six hours in a maximum of 61 degree water
  • Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in April 2011 – 24 miles of challenging conditions, including our first exposure to jellyfish
  • USMS 25K in June 2011 – 17 miles in 7.5 hours

We finally made it to England.  I have discussed our English Channel swim in exhaustive detail, so I won’t do it again.  With respect to this story, however, it was pretty straightforward; I got lucky and was offered a window in the weather to attempt the swim, and Don was not.  Weather conditions conspired against him, and he never got a chance to start.  I was thrilled to have had the opportunity, and Don selflessly shared that excitement with me.  He was crushed that he never had the chance, and I keenly felt that heartbreak.

Fast forward a year, to September 2012.  We were closing in on our plans to swim the Catalina Channel in California, and I got a call from Don.  “Do you have a full crew?” he asked.  “If there is room for me on the boat, I would love to come.”  Quite apart from the fact that he is such a close friend, if you have the chance to have someone with Don’s marathon swimming experience on your crew, you jump at it.  So, jump at it we did.

After all of our shared experiences, successes and disappointments, it was the Catalina swim where Don Macdonald really proved what a superstar he is.  Susan says that I have Don to thank for the success of that swim.  He spent a number of hours in the escort kayak, never more than a few feet from me, as I swam.  He was there as I was stung by countless jellyfish, as we fought head-on currents, and even as my pesky goggles kept filling with water.  Don coached, scolded, teased, fibbed, and even channeled the voices of people who weren’t there.  As we approached the finishing beach, Don hopped into the water with me so we could finish the swim together.  Never was there a more fitting ending to a marathon swim, after how many years of being training partners, that Don and I were able to complete Catalina together.  Don was definitely the MVP that day.

Don still had his eyes on what he viewed as unfinished business with the English Channel, and I don’t blame him.  He secured a reservation with an escort boat for the fall of 2014 and, after getting clearance from his doctors to step up his training, was starting to work out in earnest in August 2013.  Privately, I was hoping he would ask me to reciprocate by being on his crew, so we could celebrate his swim together.

It was then that the unthinkable happened.  In his typical understated way, Don refers to it as a “cardiac arrhythmia event that required life-saving measures.”  What I remember are the days sitting vigil at the cardiac ICU at our local hospital wondering what sort of a future my friend would have.  I remember eventually sitting with him in intensive care, and he was telling me that he had been told in no uncertain terms by his cardiologist that the English Channel was no longer a consideration, and that he would be lucky to even get back in a pool again.  That incalculable loss meant that we grieved together.

Don’s grief didn’t last long.  He said, “I love being involved with open water swimming.  That is what my friends do, and I need to stay involved.”  Within a matter of days, from his hospital bed, Don ordered a kayak.  “If I can’t swim with you, at least I can paddle around for you clowns.”  So, that is what he has done.  Don Macdonald has become the best kayak escort for open water swimmers around.

When I was notified that my application had been accepted to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim last November, Don was the first person I called.  “I made it into MIMS,” I told him, “and I need a kayaker.  Wanna get the band back together?”  He immediately agreed, so 10 months after his “cardiac event,” Don will be paddling 28.5 miles around Manhattan.

As soon as we were able to begin swimming in the lakes this spring, Don has joined me with his new kayak at 6:00 every morning so we can practice the coordination between the swimmer and the kayak.  It is working beautifully.  We have developed some hand signals and some other little games to play to make the time go by.  Don was in New York on business recently, and he made a point of finding a boat somewhere so he could paddle around on the rivers.  He came back with a characteristically detailed report of what I should expect.

On June 28, Don is going to be there every stroke of the way.  And if the East River, the Harlem River and the Hudson River will let someone around, I can swim that far.

Most of all, I can’t wait to celebrate with my training partner.

Meet the Team - Project Manager Meghan

Susan and I met Meg when she was 12.  We were brand new to Barrington with six-month old Mack, and Susan was looking for a mother’s helper.  Susan put a flyer on a bulletin board at St. Anne’s School in hopes that a responsible 8th grader might be interested.  It was Meg who answered that flyer, and while she was only a 7thgrader, she was the oldest girl in her large family, and thought that she could be helpful.  Meg came to our house and when Susan watched her in action for a short time, Meg was quickly elevated to full-fledged babysitter.  That first meeting took place more than 26 years ago.  Quite literally, Meg walked in our front door and she never really walked out.

Because of the time we’ve spent together and the unavoidable trials and tribulations we’ve faced together, we are as family as family can get.  It’s as simple as that.  In addition to babysitting for Mack when he was just a baby, she was right by our side when we brought the rest of our children home through adoption.  She learned to be a mother by the fire of helping to raise our four kids and now she is the most excellent mother to her own little girl, Eileen.  In many ways, Eileen is Meg’s “Mini Me” and has been a blessing, and we’ve stood by Meg every step of the way.

I cannot remember a single time when Meg didn’t have a big smile on her freckled Irish face.  She has a wonderfully infectious laugh, and she is one of those people whose eyes sparkle – really sparkle – every time you see her.

As our kids have grown up we’ve continued our friendship with Meg.  In fact, she lives down the street from us now.  She and Susan are thick as thieves.  Susan calls her the best friend she has ever had.

Meg got involved with A Long Swim almost by accident.  Susan, the kids and I were in Florida for the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in 2011, which we were using as a bit of a shakedown cruise for the English Channel swim a few months later.  Meg happened to be in Florida also, seeing family near Ft. Myers.  She and Susan were talking on the phone, and Susan said, “I wish you were part of the crew here.  We could use an extra set of hands.”  The following morning, Meg was up at 2:00 a.m. and in the car on her way to Tampa to help.

Just like when she walked into our lives as a 12-year old babysitter, Meg quickly went about to organize all that needed to be done on the escort boat.  She is the “we’re gonna get organized, and we’re gonna get this done right now” person, and everyone really fell into line.  Think of a job supervisor on a construction site; Meg was able to make sure that:

  • My strokes were being counted every ten minutes, and recorded in our log book
  • My drinks were mixed and delivered every 30 minutes
  • My well-being was satisfactory at all times

It is no surprise, then, when we were making plans for the English Channel swim a few months later, that Meg’s would be the first name on the list.  There, she did all of the things that she had in Tampa, but also had to keep track of the throw-up bags for the crew.  One of my favorite pictures of Meg is during the English Channel swim, and she was bundled up from the cold.  In the photo, she has two watches on her wrist, and she has the log book opened in front of her.  It is as though she is the director of an orchestra, but instead of performing a symphony, our goal was to swim to another country.

Meg has an abundance of all the attributes needed of the director; she is detail oriented, responsible, level headed, creative, and never flags.  She’s also full of spunk and wild humor.  She is the indispensable Project Manager of theA Long Swim team.  We love her.

The rules for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim state that only two crew members are allowed on the escort boat.   We weren’t sure at the beginning who the second crew member would be, but we knew that Meg would be the first.

During the MIMS swim, there will be lots of communication with observers near and far, about location and progress, and about stroke counts and feeding details.

If you watch the story unfold that day, thank Meg; I know I will.

Three weeks to go before MIMS.  Lake Michigan is approaching 60 degrees.  Taper starts next week.

See you at the beach.  I will report back.

Meghan and Billy, Dover Harbor

Meghan and Billy, Dover Harbor


Meet the Team - Dave and Bonnie McConnell

Every little boy grows up thinking that his father is the strongest guy in the world.  I grew up knowing it for sure.

My dad had been quite an athlete and was captain of his football team in high school, and the physicality of being a veterinarian suited him.  I can remember him putting a shoulder down and pushing a milk cow over a couple of steps so he could examine her.  I can remember him lifting Great Danes and St. Bernards onto examining tables like they were Cocker Spaniels.  He was strong, to be sure.  In later years, to watch ALS systematically rob him of that strength was almost too much to bear.

When my sisters and I were young, we shuffled off to swimming lessons.  It was a priority to both of my folks that we were competent swimmers.  My mother had actually been a lifeguard and swimming teacher, but my father was one of those good swimmers without formal training.  Years later, he explained why our learning to swim was such a priority to him.

It turns out that there had been a drowning on a neighboring farm when he was growing up, and it had affected him deeply.  Apparently, a little girl on that farm had dropped a toy into a watering tank that was used for livestock.  She reached for the toy, and tumbled into the tank.  Because of the slippery vertical sides, she wasn’t able to get out, and she panicked and drowned.  It was a tragic story that he had vowed would never be repeated.

What he hadn’t bargained for was that we would not only learn to swim, we would learn to swim fast.  That was my sister Ellen’s entrée to competitive swimming, and she was unstoppable.  Martha and I tagged along because it looked like fun, and soon it was just something that we all did.  The summer Park District program extended into the winter YMCA program, and the years piled up.  My sisters swam until the competitive opportunities for young women at the time dried up, and I was lucky enough to keep going with it through college.

My folks didn’t like to attend swimming meets.  I can’t say I blame them, as meets can be endless, loud, hot and uncomfortable.  Starting from the time I was in junior high school, my folks would make a point to attend the championship meet at the end of the season only.  They were always very supportive, but sitting on bleachers (what my dad called “ass-crackers”) for hours at a time just wasn’t on the to-do list.

Ironically, and as it relates to A Long Swim, my father was particularly critical of distance freestyle.  After a whole career as a butterflyer, I was excited to swim a 1000 yard freestyle in a meet in college once, and he pulled me aside afterward and said, “Jeez, don’t ever do THAT to me again!  That was the most boring thing I ever saw!  I haven’t smoked in years, and all I can think of is to go have a cigarette.  What’s next, competitive paint-drying?”

My father was diagnosed with ALS in 1994.  We had just brought a new baby, Gordy, home from the hospital, and my folks came over to tell us the news.  What I knew about ALS was limited to the legend of Lou Gehrig, and he walked me through a pretty bleak outlook.  “I’ve had these weird symptoms for about two years already.  Actuarially, I’m going to suffocate or starve to death in three or four years.”  What hit me the hardest was the fact that my kids would grow up without knowing him.  I guess I had known that they would have different relationships with him than I had, but it had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t have him at all.  I was heartbroken over it.

ALS is a slow motion shipwreck, but he way outlived that expectation.  I think it was because of his positive attitude and the world-class care he received at Northwestern, which is why the money we raise with A Long Swim is directed there.  When he died in 2006, our kids ranged from 19 to 8 and, while they will always remember him in a wheelchair, at least they knew him very well.  Forever, they will know what he thought was important, they will know what he hoped and worried about for their futures, and they will know what he thought was funny.

My mother is all alone now, but for Louise the cat.  She lives in the same house we all grew up in, and is surrounded by her art, her books, and her birds.  My folks met as first-graders, began dating in high school, and started a 54-year marriage right after college.  She was a self-taught accountant who spent so many years running the business side of my father’s animal hospital.   Her mind was like a steel trap, so it is particularly unsettling when she forgets things sometimes now.  She spent 12 years as a primary caregiver for my father after he got sick, so I can only imagine how she misses him.  They were an unbeatable team, and were ideal role models for my sisters and me.   To us, she was the organized one, and he was always good for comic relief with a smartass comment.

My father had quite a sense of humor, and no one will ever tell a story as well as he could.  And, oh, would he have the stories to tell about A Long Swim.  I have often thought about what he would say about our swims.  I am sure that he would tease me, I know that he would challenge me, and I suspect that he would be concerned for me.  In the end, he might not agree with me, but I am certain that he would be my biggest supporter.