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Barrington Man Swims with Heart for ALS: Part 1

Doug Swims the English Channel
Doug Swims the English Channel
Doug McConnell

Barrington resident Doug McConnell is pushing the currents in swimming the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. He will be competing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) on June 28 this upcoming month. At 56 years of age, Doug has already swam the English Channel and the Catalina Channel both of which are outstanding feats at any age.

When Doug finishes the swim this month, he will be in a select group of less than 100 swimmers who have completed these amazing distances. But, that is not the real story, Doug is using his passion for swimming to raise awareness of ALS and fundraise for medical research. Since his swim across the English Channel, Doug has raised more than $220,000 for ALS research at the Les Turner ALS Research Laboratory at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

This is a 3 part series from an interview with Doug McConnell.

Andrea: Are you ever afraid of the open water long distance swims?

Doug: Fear never really enters into it. I know the risks, and I have done all that I can to control everything that can be controlled. Being ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at you is the uncontrollable part, and that is what really makes marathon swimming an interesting challenge. I guess I worry about things, specifically the kinds of things that would cause me to withdraw from the swim and get in the boat. For that, most of the worry is about jellyfish, which are uncontrollable,practically invisible and as painful as can be.

Jellyfish can be extremely painful.

Many marathon swimmers talk about the constant struggle they go through about stopping their swims. Sometimes it is the cold, sometimes the dark, and sometimes the jellyfish, but many of them weigh the “do I get out?” question against whatever it is that is that’s threatening to stop their swim. Several accounts of English Channel swimmers specifically mention that they hated seeing the swim ladder that is on the back of the escort boat. To them, the ladder meant that they could get out and get warm, and that it would mean that the pain in their shoulders and lungs would stop. They hated that the crew didn’t pull the ladder up because seeing it there almost taunted them.

For me, when I swam the English Channel, the ladder didn’t matter. I looked at that ladder 20,000 times, and never once did I think about climbing onto it. Once the swim started, it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t end on the French shore.

Andrea: What goes through your mind when swimming these distances?

Doug: To occupy my thoughts while I swim, I count strokes. I started counting some years ago, mostly to get a bad song out of my head (I simply could not listen to “Wheels on the Bus” one more time!) and discovered that it was a good way to keep my head in the game. I also use it to determine time and distance, as I know that I swim about 1,300 strokes to a mile, and 1,750 strokes to the next feeding (which are on 30-minute cycles). It took me 40,538 strokes to cross the English Channel and 36,719 to cross the Catalina Channel.

Keeping my mind engaged has helped me avoid “hitting the wall,” which can happen, especially after a 10, 12 or 14 hour swim. Most people will wonder.... what was your first thought to swim these kinds of courses? Free breakfast.

I have a brother-in-law who is an Ironman-distance triathlete. He got into triathlons, despite the fact that he wasn’t much of a swimmer, but he forced himself to master it. He got coaching (I helped him out at one point) and worked very hard so he could do the longer races. I have nothing but respect for anyone who can come to swimming as an adult and master it like he has.

One day he told me about a 2-mile open water, swimming-only race that he was going to participate in, and he asked if I would like to come along. I had been a pool swimmer through college, but open water wasn’t really my thing. When he offered to take me to breakfast afterward, I agreed. We had a terrific time, and I started to register for more races with longer distances.

The idea of the English Channel, then, was an extension of that. One day during the summer of 2009 I had been in a five-mile lake race in Minneapolis and when we returned that evening, my wife Susan and were visiting with friends over a glass of wine. I still had the numerals on my arm from the race that day, and our friend Don asked me how it had gone. Me: “It was so windy and wavy in Lake Minnetonka that it felt like I was swimming in the English Channel.”

Don: “No kidding? I’ve always wanted to swim the English Channel!”

Me: “Gee, so have I!”

So, Don opened another bottle of wine, and by the time it was gone, we were going to England.

Find out what Doug's next adventure includes in part 2.