Illinois grad swims English Channel for ALS research
By Sarah Fischer
Crossing the English Channel is, for open-water swimmers, like summiting Mount Everest for mountain climbers. Actually, it’s harder. Since the first successful swim – made in 1875 – from the white cliffs of Dover to the French town of Calais, just 811 people have completed the 25-mile stroke-fest, half the number who have reached the peak of Everest.
Up until a couple of years ago, Doug McConnell ’79 bus had never swum more than five miles straight. He had very little experience with saltwater and had never swum in cold water. Yet in 2009 he decided that he was going to swim the English Channel.
Seventeen hours after getting settled in Dover on Aug. 21, McConnell was in the water, headed east. “The biggest worry was jellyfish,” he said. “And cold water.” McConnell also faced winds of more than 20 miles per hour and swells that, as he wrote in his blog about the experience, gave him the feeling of “just getting slapped around by the waves, taking in lots of seawater and trying to keep on course.”
“You have to be ready for the unexpected,” he added in a telephone interview for Illinois Alumni.
Swimming the Channel allowed McConnell to blend a collection of personal goals. Foremost was memorializing his father, David McConnell ’54 vm, dvm ’56, who died in 2006 after a 14-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
To raise funds, McConnell partnered with the Les Turner ALS Foundation, which joins Northwestern University in supporting ALS research and patient services. In his first meeting with the foundation to discuss his goal, McConnell said, “I made up a number: $50,000.”
Turns out he was more than on the money. His campaign, A Long Swim, met its $50,000 mark on Aug. 3, two and a half weeks before McConnell’s plunge into the icy waves of the English Channel. By the start of September, he and his team – which includes his wife and sister – had raised upward of $150,000.
McConnell attributes much of his preparation to his four years as a swimmer at the University of Illinois. Under the guidance of swim coach Don Sammons ’55 ahs, ms ’60 ahs, McConnell began as a freshman walk-on for the swim team. He quickly excelled, earning “Most Valuable Swimmer” back-to-back years and breaking the varsity record in the 200-yard butterfly – a record he held for 10 years. McConnell even took over as captain of the team in his senior year, the same year he placed 18th in the NCAA finals. He frequently credits Sammons for giving him the confidence needed to tackle the Channel. “One of the things you learn is to reorder your thinking, so you think, ‘This is really something I can do. I can do whatever I want,’” McConnell said.
And, in the case of his long swim, he did. On Aug. 22, at 3 a.m., 14 hours and 18 minutes after leaving England, through six hours of 5-foot swells, seven hours in the dark and 40,538 strokes, McConnell became the 48th person over age 50 to successfully swim the English Channel.
By his side floated his family, including his wife, Susan, who took photographs; three of their kids, who kept silent about menacing jellyfish quietly encroaching upon the boat; and a family friend, who stayed busy the entire time. All of them helped to keep McConnell on course – despite their own seasickness. “A Long Swim team is awesome,” McConnell said. “I feel privileged to be on that team. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of how lucky I am to have my family, to have them play such critical roles on the … team and the opportunity to be able to undertake this crazy swim at all.”
Asked if he plans to continue fundraising for ALS, McConnell eagerly replies that he has his eye on a number of swims. “Something about this story seems to resonate with people,” he adds. “I’d love to keep it going. No reason to stop now.”
Fischer, a fall intern at the UIAA, is a junior in rhetoric. She will be studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom, in the spring.