Quintessential people

Doug Mcconnell: Swimming for Your Life


by David Rutter | Photo: thomas balsamo

Barrington’s Doug McConnell attacks oceanic marathons, but not for glory or medals. Maybe the money he raises will let researchers cure relentlessly fatal ALS. That ambition drives him.

The 2 a.m. blackness of July 31, 2016 greeted The Swimmer. He’s late. He should have attacked the Pacific Ocean long before midnight, but the winds were too high. The Pacific waits patiently with a beautiful, but murderous physical power.

He steps off the shoreline, plunges into the swelling surf. And is gone.

He would not see daylight for another four hours. Before dusk returns that night, the Pacific Ocean will have done its best to swallow Doug McConnell. Tons of the Pacific Ocean waves born a thousand feet deep will pour salt water over, around, and through him.

He is part of an eight-person expedition team of family and friends. He loves them all. Needs them. But in the dark, in the water, in the 32 miles between Hawaii’s Molokai and Oahu islands, he is alone. This is his realm. This is what he has made of his life.

His goggled-eyes plunge into the water. His legs kick ceaselessly. His arms windmill through the water so thick with saline that a human body can almost float unaided like a cork. It masks how easy it is to drown here.

“Rhythm,” he says. Always the rhythms that merge physical skill, strength, human will, and fate. He is piledriving through 15-foot waves at 3 miles-per-hour as his soul meets the rhythm. Pounding. Pushing. And then again. And again.

He loses himself, silently counting the strokes over and over.

And then her voice calls to him from their nearby companion chase boat. You are running against the current. You won’t be able to make it before dark. Time to end the swim now, she says.

Over the years, McConnell had swum 22,000 miles just this way in a life dedicated to competitive fundraising swimming, but at midstroke on his 42,000th stroke that day, as if some unseen clock tolled, it was over. Done.

He looked back at her and their eyes met. His heart sank, but just for a second, because he knew she was right without need of any debate. He never tricks himself. He had always given her the ultimate, irrevocable power to call him out from whatever deep water on this planet that had summoned his soul.

She is the First Citizen on his team. The word of Susan McConnell is final.

And so, Doug McConnell—Barrington investment banker, wayfaring adventurer, philanthropist, fundraiser, husband, dad of four, man of muscle, and citizen exemplar— relaxes into the moment and absorbs Susan McConnell’s decision. He was so close to the end, and yet farther away than he had ever been.

He finally had found his own uncharted existential waters. How strange for him.

He was barely a quarter mile from Oahu after starting 32 miles and 16 hours east on the ledge that surrounds Molokai. “A thousand strokes from the coast,” he guesses. “A thousand strokes is not even a good warm-up. I have to swim 1,500 strokes just to feel human on some mornings … I was so close I thought I could throw a baseball and hit it.”

How odd, he thinks. It was the first time in his 58 years he had not finished a swimming race he had started. But it was more than that.

McConnell has long-ceased racing for medals, ribbons, and acclaim. He is a man of strategic life directions who puts his existence in harm’s way for a higher reason. He’s not racing for ego now. He’s racing because contributors give money for his passion.

He races to save your life—if you are one of the five who will be diagnosed tomorrow with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or one of 100,000 to be diagnosed with the degenerative neuro-disorder in the next two decades.

He’s at war with ALS.

You and the other 99,999 will all die likely within six years of that “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” diagnosis unless McConnell and the worldwide network of researcher he subsidizes win the race first. On the week he dived into the Pacific, researchers at Northwestern University—where his money goes—announced a “first trigger” breakthrough. A loud, genetic clue. But it might be the first key of many that turns the genetic padlock that opens the ALS mystery. One turn of the key at a time; one long, powerful swimming stroke at time.

Beyond devotion to his children and Susan, this has become McConnell’s reason for being and has been for years since his father was diagnosed with ALS.

“We lost him 10 years ago in July,” McConnell says. “He told us after the diagnosis that the actuarial tables said he had three to five years to live. And then he said he would die of starvation or suffocation. That’s what ALS does. But he outlived it in a wheelchair, long enough for my children to know him. I am thankful for that because he was a wonderful man.”

In some ways, he has organized his seagoing support team to match the researchers’ quest. His seaborne sidekicks are self-named “A Long Swim” to reinforce that the exercise at sea is not showbiz.

Everything is team. When he describes his brutal assaults on a brutal sea, he never uses “I.” Only “we.”

There’s a reason for that.

“This research for an ALS cure is all collaborative now,” he says with a pride and admiration for them that leaves little room for noticing him. He prefers that, though he seems more famous elsewhere in the world than in Barrington.

That subdued celebrity is a common fate for significant people who are uninterested and unimpressed in reflected glory. It marks him as special. That would embarrass him. But everyone knows it’s true. “Leader of the pack,” as Susan says.

His structured approach to preparing and executing the swims mirrors the scientific structure of researchers he admires. That orderliness goes all the way back to college days as captain of the University of Illinois swim team, and is consistent with the project-based work he does as an investment banker.

“They will find something at Northwestern; then pass it to labs in Oslo, and then maybe to Tokyo. It’s all team. In the old days, researchers at each laboratory would hold their research very close and not share. They wanted to be the one who found the cure. That’s why we know about Salk curing polio.”

His research soulmates, like McConnell, have good days and bad. There are no shortcuts in either quest. But one dollar he raises from supporters might be the one dollar for the one genetic scan that finds the one necessary answer. That compels him.

He’s raised $400,000 so far. Every dollar goes into a laboratory.

In many technical ways, the Ka’iwi Channel swim was the hardest he’d faced—including conquests of the English Channel, the 24 miles from Catalina Island to Long Beach, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim around New York City. Strong currents, crosswinds, and massing waves driven before Tropical Storm Darby had turned this 3,000-foot deep channel even more scurrilous than normal. Only 35 had ever completed solo swims of the “Channel of Bones.”

McConnell had to hit a precisely calculated 60-yard wide beach on Oahu’s east coast or not make landing during the daylight. Oahu’s east coast is high cliffs and volcanic rock, except for that beach.

He and Susan had agreed he could not swim an extra four hours against currents and then try to land the swim in the dark. That was a safety issue they agreed would not be subject to compromise. She did the math. He was aiming himself through a needle’s eye on an endless ocean that simultaneously shoved him in every direction. “I was just hoping the waves wouldn’t tear my arms off,” he said.

Ranie Pearce had attempted the same swim a week before, when the camera on her team’s airborne drone saw a pair of trailing tiger sharks. She’d been in the water for eight miles. That ended her swim abruptly. “She told me the 12-footer came close enough that she felt it when it swam under her legs,” he said.

But a man who swims the open Pacific Ocean to be stung dozens of times by jellyfish poison to which he is allergic, fed gooey, thick nutrition through plastic tubes, and drained of an all physical strength is not a person of momentary ambitions. He would swim, sharks or not.

That’s because he is the long swimmer by temperament and talent. And his life is no stunt. McConnell is playing the long game. The very long game.

So, before anyone’s tempted to sadness that he arrived 1,000 strokes short of this one goal, do not, he insists. No sad faces now, though some on his chase boat cried. As for him, he admits wistfulness, but not tragedy.

“You can train and prepare to control every variable. I’ve always loved the training,” he says. “But that just gets you to the starting line. Nothing earns the finish line.”

The only real tragedy is the now-inevitable, cruel death of ALS. Because his expeditionary team is mostly his family, plus longtime swimming partner Don Macdonald hanging close in a kayak, there are never mixed motives about what they do, or why.

Would he go back to settle old business in Hawaii? “Thinking about it,” he says softly. The lone Hawaiian master swimmer who has conquered all nine Hawaiian channel swims has issued a challenge to him. You have work left to do. Come back.

One of these days, he may have to stop. “Yes, I am just now able to lift my arms over my head,” he said a week after returning home. “And I know the fatigue is deeper.”

He seems almost unexceptionally normal until he shakes your hand. Then you know he is built of sinew and titanium, as his dad, David, had seemed in Doug’s youth.

But one of these days, the numbers and risk will conspire. The clock will toll again. And then Doug McConnell will stop, though even he knows he might not be the one to see the decision that must be made.

Who will stop him when the open sea is no longer safe enough for him to dare? Who will have the power to say when it’s over?

He pauses and looks up with a tiny smile. “She will.”

Here are some words that others shared about doug mcconnell

Amy Bash, Friend

Doug McConnell is as gracious and authentic as one individual can be. He brings life and charisma to all gatherings he attends and his unique sense of humor always serves as the night’s entertainment.

Doug portrays every attribute of what one seeks out in a friend. His charm and exuberant attitude bring out the best in people. We have all watched in awe as he swam amazing distances to raise money for ALS research. Although if you mention his accomplishments, he is quick to give credit to his family and support staff. Simply put, Doug McConnell is making the world a better place.

Bob Lee, Friend

The essence of Doug’s life has had a powerful “ripple effect” on the many who have been “in his wake.” I am honored to be one of those who has been impacted by his goodness.

Photography has been a conduit to many good things in my life, among them meeting our “Home Town Photographer” Susan McConnell and, subsequently, her husband Doug. I know of no one who has put forth more energy toward one single mission than Doug McConnell.

Doug’s focus, energy, fortitude, strength, and determination are not only inspiring, but simply amazing. Doug’s faithful dedication to training for his many long swims has been tireless and lovingly supported by his family. The foundation for Doug’s success is his passion, humility, calm nature, tenacity, and authenticity. Why does he swim? Because he can! Doug swims for those who cannot. Doug’s commitment to supporting collaborative research to find a cure for ALS is second-to-none. We have served together on the Les Turner ALS Board for many years and have shared the exhilaration of knowing that progress is being made through this accelerated collaborative research. Because of who he is as a person, Doug has been supported with great respect and admiration by Barrington and beyond. Together we have witnessed his dreams unfold and come to fruition. Doug is not only a gifted swimmer, but he is also an engaged father and husband, a talented writer, and an inspiring and motivating public speaker. I am proud to know Doug McConnell and to be able to call him a wonderful friend!

Don Macdonald, Open Water Swimmer, Resilience Mentor

While my perspective of Doug is albeit a bit salty and wet from swimming and kayaking all over the world together, I can say that Doug McConnell is the role model for our community in teaching the values of journey, grace, and team.

Our families have traveled all over the world from Dover’s Cliffs across to the beaches of France, Florida, Boston, California, and Hawaii to do these silly swims. While veiled as a family vacation, there are teaching moments to each family member, including ourselves.

During these trips I have observed important traits of Doug as a heads down, quietly gritty Chicagoan with big shoulders, who happens to use swimming as a vehicle to drive awareness of things important to him. Whether its swimming millions of yards, shivering in cold water, or countless strokes—he is paying it forward so others might pause even just for a moment to consider others less fortunate, and perhaps do something about it.

While crossing the Channel of Bones this past month, he popped up after this wave ran him over, looked at me, and said, “You just can’t believe how blue the water is, it’s like a jewel, and it goes forever.” He put his head back down and kept swimming.

For Doug, swimming is his solace, a time to think, and a time to sort out how to bring attention to a causes like ALS or other afflictions, but in a way that is lasting. As with any solitary pursuit there always comes a funny side and for Doug, it’s counting. Doug likes to count, count more, and then count even more. While he reads this, he is probably counting the letters.

Why does any of this matter? Because it takes hard work, lots of hard work, and the consistent, focused pursuit of a goal to leave a lasting impression and that’s the kind of guy Doug is. It is “journey” that Doug wants to teach, from suffering to success, and counting lets him get organized and stay focused, from England to France, to get it done.

Meeting Doug later in life, in our 50s, one might assume we’d be acquaintances. Perhaps you wouldn’t learn too much detail about family, upbringing, and values. But my experience is while training to swim the English Channel you tend to spend a great deal of time together exposed and in raw form that reveals a lot. During these years, I’ve discovered Doug learned his values as one might expect from his parents, siblings, and family long before he knew sadly what ALS was and its tragic outcome among other personal challenges. But it has been in my observation Doug’s family and their foundation allows him to swim and to teach others about the values important to him—team, journey, and sacrifice.

It’s pretty clear his trait of kindness was cemented from years of hard work in his dad’s vet office, on the farm, making financial deals on State Street to help others grow their company, or simply through winning and losing in age group swim races.

Let’s be honest, America loves a winner. Sometimes we get lost in the effort to win at all cost, and this is where I believe Doug’s values and lessons from his swimming teach us all how to be better people; a better community. Especially for younger children, to learn that teamwork is vital to success and that success isn’t always winning a trophy, but in the grace you exhibit along the journey you take. Something adults can appreciate, too.

A reluctant hero, Doug has little interest in the ephemeral reward of a trophy, medal, or recognition. Doug actually gets a bit flustered when they are laid at his feet, but is always gracious when they come. Doug will say it’s a bit overwhelming, but for him, standing on that far beach is reward enough, knowing someone perhaps paused to consider others less fortunate and maybe began a journey of their own.

Peter Yankala, Friend

Swim Superstar. Philanthropist. I met Doug McConnell when I was helping promote Bob Lee’s Ride For 3 Reasons. ALS was one of the beneficiaries of that fundraiser. One night, at a dinner for Bob, I had the chance to talk with Doug about his own abstract efforts in ALS fundraising. Open water swimming for ALS was…OK, ahhh, well, yes…I guess that’s not any more abstract than riding a bike around the country, but you’re going to have to help me understand that one.

My own experiences with fundraising were galas in a tux, elegant dinners at hotel ballrooms, or perhaps a Barrington Hills estate where the only danger was maybe the swimming pool. Doug’s water venue was a little less glamorous, a little more dangerous, and a lot more...vast. English Channel anyone? 32.7 miles in just over 14 hours of continuous open water swimming. What the hell? No tuxes? No elegant dinners? No comfortable, casual poolside chatter? As the entrée arrived, I finally asked: “Why do you do this stuff, Doug?”

“I do it because I can still move my arms and legs. An ALS patient cannot,” Doug began. He then explained that his father passed from ALS and his sister now suffers from the disease. As I looked into the English Channel swim, I remember thinking what an incredible athlete he was, and recognizing why his commitment to raising awareness was so strong. I knew little about Lou Gehrig’s Disease until this event, but I immediately understood the awareness pathway Doug envisioned.

Today, I treat every one of Doug’s epic swims as an opportunity to introduce him and his cause to the great people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with over the 40 years that I’ve owned Phillips [Men’s Wear]. Doug’s story and commitment to finding a cure are more powerful advocates than I could ever be. I like to say that when the cure for ALS is found (and it will be) it will be from the donations Doug McConnell inspired.

Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.

Learn more about Doug McConnell’s open water swims, events, pursuit
to help fund a cure for ALS, and his profile as a corporate motivational speaker at www.ALongSwim.org. When he is not swimming, reach him at his investment banking practice at: DMcConnell@MetCapIB.com which is located at Metropolitan Capital Investment Bank, Nine East Ontario Street in Chicago.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.