Swimming for a cause 

McConnell didn’t make it from Nantucket to M.V.; effort raised funds for ALS.

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On Monday, Doug McConnell attempted to swim from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard for the second time in three years.

Despite falling short on his attempt Monday due to extreme currents, McConnell was greeted at a reception at Harbor View Inn in Edgartown, where he talked about his past swims and his ongoing cause.

Although he was not able to complete the crossing, the 63-year-old man from Chicago is not a novice at this, and has been swimming for decades. He crossed the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, swam in Hawaii from Molokai to Oahu, and also swam the Manhattan Island marathon swim, he told The Times. And he swims for a cause: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gherig’s disease.

After preparing himself for such swims, McConnell does a lot of endurance training, distance swimming, as well as dry-land exercises for core strength and shoulder mobility. “One of the most liberating things about marathon swimming is that they throw away the stopwatch,” McConnell said.

For the swim, McConnell followed the English Channel rules: No wetsuit, no paddles, no fins or anything else that would make you faster. Basically, anything that would make you comfortable is off-limits. The uniform is a Speedo-style swimsuit, a swim cap, and goggles. One has to start and finish on dry land. One cannot touch the escort boat, or anybody in the escort boat. This means that every 30 minutes or so, McConnell’s crew would throw him a high-carbohydrate, high-calorie drink for him to stay hydrated.

Debra Taylor, who completed her swim from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket in 2000 in a little over eight hours, was there to support McConnell in his latest attempt. (An attempt in 2019 was cut short by jellyfish stings and currents.) So far no one has completed the reverse swim, starting from Nantucket. “They are both equally challenging,” Taylor said. “When we did the swim in 2000, we got in the water and had a foul tide, so imagine running a marathon and having to start with a sprint. When you are swimming in opposite directions, you have a fair tide, but when you land over on the Vineyard, it’s a lot riskier, with the possibility of a foul tide. So you are going to get it on one end or the other.”

The window to cross is very short, and only presents itself twice a month. Monday morning, McConnell left Martha’s Vineyard on Harbor View Hotel owner Bernard Chiu’s boat at around 3:30 am to head over to Nantucket, where he jumped off Eel Point Beach at 8 am. 

According to Dana Gaines, the navigation expert on the team, the current they thought they would get during the first three hours never materialized. “By the time he had made it west, Muskeget Island, the current in a big part of the channel had already changed. No matter how he would swim, he would have ended up on the Cape or something,” said Gaines. 

He went on to add, “We learned a lesson today; we will be able to factor that in for the next one.” 

“What makes it very challenging to cross this channel are the six miles of semi-protected water and then the eight miles of unprotected water to get to Chappaquiddick,” he said.

Despite being pulled out of the water after around 5 hours at 1 pm, McConnell was nonetheless greeted as a hero when he arrived. His Swim for the Cure was a big success. Chiu organized a reception in his honor at the Harbor View Hotel, attended by 30 close friends and family, to congratulate McConnell on “his very noble mission.” 

Chiu, on behalf of the Harbor View Hotel, donated $10,000 to the cause.

McConnell’s son and all-time supporter, Mack McConnell, looks up to his father. “He’s not doing it for him, he always talks about his team and charity.” says Mack. Robert Von Goebem, Doug McConnell’s brother-in-law is also very proud of Doug’s accomplishments. He and his wife came from Portland to support him. “I wouldn’t miss it in the world,” Von Goebem said.

McConnell’s father and sister, who both suffered from ALS, passed away. “My sister came up with the idea of borrowing the acronym for ALS disease and coming up with the name A Long Swim,” McConnell said during the reception. 

McConnell and his family are grateful for raising more than $1.4 million for a research lab at Northwestern University of Chicago.

McConnell and his team hope to come back next summer to complete A Long Swim.

If you are interested in supporting this cause, go to alongswim.org.

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