I have been alive for 56 years. I have been a competitive swimmer for 50 of them.
And for less than a decade, I’ve been an open water swimmer. In that decade, I’ve experienced—and accomplished—more than I ever thought possible.
It’s very possible to combine your passions, talents, and work to create your own inspirational story that even you will be floored by.
My Motivation: Lou Gehrig’s Disease
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive, degenerative disorder that affects motor neurons, causing them to gradually cease functioning and die.
People with ALS slowly lose the ability to move their muscles, yet their mind essentially remains unaffected. As there is no cure for ALS, most patients die within five years of diagnosis.
I lost my father to ALS in 2006, and other family members are battling this shipwreck of a disease now.
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When my friend and I decided to train for crossing the English Channel, we wanted to incorporate a charity element to our swim. My family and I chose to support the Les Turner ALS Foundation of suburban Chicago, which funds medical research, patient care, and advocacy efforts.
The juxtaposition of ALS, where the patient slowly loses the use of their muscles, and swimming, in which the swimmer must use all of those same muscles, seemed perfect.
We borrowed the ALS acronym and named our effort “A Long Swim.”
A Long Swim Indeed: The 79.5-Mile Journey
From 2011 to last month, I have received countless jellyfish welts. I have swam in the black of night across huge swells and through immensely cold waters.
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With my family and friends’ support, I have swam across three massive distances: the 30-mile English Channel, the 21-mile Catalina Channel, and the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
In the world of open water swimming, these three marathon swims – the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim – are considered the “Triple Crown.”
With my completion of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, I am the 88th person in the world to have the Triple Crown distinction, and I am the 15th to have completed them all over the age of 50.
However, far more important than any “Triple Crown” title has been the response to our fundraising activities.
To date, A Long Swim has raised $300,000 for the Les Turner ALS Foundation, and it is making a measurable difference.
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The pace of discovery in ALS research is accelerating, and researchers at Northwestern announced the discovery of the common cause of ALS on the same day that I completed the English Channel swim. Few things can be more gratifying than that.
Along the way, we have discovered some of what my father called “eternal verities”—unshakable truths—about finding the motivation to continue down a difficult path and create your own inspirational story.
5 Ways To Have Unshakeable Inspiration
1. Find your passion
Without passion, we are empty. I am convinced that intense passion is within every person. Sometimes, you just have to find it.
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I found my passion in open-water swimming, and it is something that I am fortunate to be able to do on an almost unlimited basis. I dovetailed that passion with support of ALS research, and the combination was perfect.
2. Do something bigger than yourself
Nothing is more frustrating than feeling powerless, and nothing addresses that frustration like defying it.
I believe that researchers will someday find a cure for ALS. The path to the cure is paved with dollar bills, and that is something we can address through A Long Swim. A Long Swim defies the misconception that ALS is incurable. We will continue to find channels to swim until the cure is found.
3. Know that you won’t always know the answers
I am convinced that the “arrogance of ignorance” is a wonderful thing. So many of us would never embark on a challenge if we really knew the likelihood of us succeeding, but we blindly dive in and learn along with way.
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As you pursue the goal, you will discover that by taking it in small steps, you will ultimately accomplish something that would have seemed impossible at the start. “I wished I hadn’t bothered,” said no one on the Olympic podium, ever.
4. Build your team and support system
I am the only swimmer on the A Long Swim team, but I truly believe that marathon swimming is the ultimate team sport. In our case, the team element is essential, because it is our family.
Without the team, there is no support and no safety; without the team, the swimmer can’t make it to the starting line, let alone the finish line.
5. Appreciate every moment
Few have been able to have the experiences we have had during A Long Swim. We have worked hard together. We have shared losses together and we have celebrated exultant successes together.
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Most of all, we have been together, and we have had experiences that we will talk about and cherish for the rest of our lives. It has been an incredible amount of hard work, but we have enjoyed the unexpected benefits along the way.
Commit to hard work to make your own inspirational story happen; as it has been said, “Dream big dreams, then put on your overalls.”
In June 2014, Doug McConnell became the 15th person over the age of 50 to receive the title of “Triple Crown,” which includes swimming the English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Through A Long Swim, they have raised $300,000 for the Les Turner ALS Foundation, which provides ALS patient support and funds world-class research into the disease.
Photo by Quentin.D | Photography