August 21, 2011: What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year on this date, the A Long Swim Team was busy stroking its way across the English Channel.  We had a Team meeting this evening over dinner, and everyone had different recollections.  Memories like, “I remember the beautiful stars,” or “I was glad when the waves died down and I quit hurling,” and “I couldn’t wait to get off that stupid boat,” were the first ones that came to their minds.  What we all could agree on was that August 21, 2011 was the start of a crazy year that has been full of excitement, good wishes and wonderful experiences.

Actually, the Channel swim took place on parts of two days, as we started on the 21st at about 1:00 p.m. local time and ended at 3:00 the next morning on a chilly and deserted French beach in the pitch black.  If you subtract six hours for the folks back in Chicago, however, the whole swim took place on August 21st, so we will leave it at that.

This year, we decided to look up some of the other interesting things that happened on August 21st:

1936 – Wilt Chamberlain was born

1959 – President Eisenhower signed the executive order to make Hawaii the 50th state

1961 – Motown records released “Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes


With all respect to the Big Dipper and the Aloha State, there is one other key event for which August 21st will always be an important date; the fact that A Long Swim is able to share the day is almost spiritual in its coincidence:

2011 – Northwestern University announced the discovery of the cause of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease


Imagine that – the NU researchers’ announcement coincided perfectly with our English Channel swim.  They had researched the cause for decades, they were frustrated at every turn, but they pressed on to achieve their goal.  The analogies between the endurance required for ALS research and the endurance required to swim the Channel are too numerous to mention, and to have them come together like they did was magical.  I couldn’t be more proud that the Northwestern researchers – many of whom have become my close friends – and the A Long Swim Team could land on the beach together.

Ours was the same Channel swim that raised more than $170,000 for the Les Turner ALS Foundation to fund their research.  Ours was the same Channel swim that was started to bring awareness to this shipwreck of a disease.  Ours was the same Channel swim that underscores so many of the things that ALS sufferers are unable to do, as they become unable to move their arms and legs or to even breathe deeply, let alone swim to France.

And just our friends at Northwestern have entered a new phase of researching potential cures for ALS, we are in the final stages of preparing for A(nother) Long Swim across the Catalina Channel in California.  The date has been solidified as September 26 – 27, which gives us five weeks to wrap up training and preparations.  Donations are rolling in, and excitement is building.  It is a different swim than the English Channel, with its own challenges and concerns.  When that day arrives, we will confront them.

The A Long Swim Team has learned many lessons as a result of the English Channel experience, some of which have taken much of the year to really understand.  Without question, the most important lesson of all is that nothing could have been accomplished without The Team.  If you are the teammate in the Speedo, this is a good Team to be on.

The attached Team portrait was taken in front of a statue of Capt. Matthew Webb, the first person to successfully swim across the English Channel.  Capt. Webb’s swim was in 1875, and any number of people perished in the attempt before and after him.  In the open water swimming world, Capt. Webb is like Elvis, and visiting his statue at Dover Harbor is like going to Graceland.  Never mind that the statue is in front of a very forgettable apartment building, or that the most frequent visitors are pigeons, every Channel swimmer has their picture taken in front of this monument to a very courageous man.  It is only fitting that, in our case, we got the Team in the shot.

See you at the beach.  I will report back