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.