A Long Swim Loses a Key Teammate – Sparkle On, Dear Meaghan

Meghan O'Doherty photo

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Our dear friend, Meghan O’Doherty, 41, has passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Meg leaves behind an uncountable number of friends, but our hearts bleed for her family, and especially for her daughter Eileen, age 13.

Our history with Meg has had a prominent place in our writing about A Long Swim, but our relationship goes back much farther.

We met Meg when she answered a “Mother’s Helper Wanted” flyer that Susan had put on a bulletin board at St. Anne School in Barrington in early 1988. We had just moved to town, and we needed some help on a couple of weekday afternoons for our six-month old son, Mack. Susan specified in the flyer that she was looking for an 8th-grade girl to fill the position. Meg answered the ad, and admitted that she didn’t fill all of the requirements; she was still a 7th grader. Even though she was only 12 years old, she felt up to the task, as she was the oldest girl in her big family and was eager to learn. Susan agreed to give her a try.

What Susan immediately learned was that Meg wasn’t a typical 12 year old. She was experienced, organized, serious and at the same time playful. In short order, Susan upgraded Meg from “mother’s helper” to “full-fledged babysitter.” What a lucky day.

I remember the first time I met Meg, which would have been 29 years ago. She was completely comfortable with the baby, whom she had charmed as completely as she had the rest of us. More importantly, she showed the spark even then that was so completely her own and was one of her most defining characteristics. Meg’s freckled face was perpetually happy, and had that glowing smile that makes the Irish so endearing. Meg came into our lives by accident, but stayed on purpose.

As our family grew, so did Meg’s involvement. She welcomed each of our children as we brought them home, and she became tight friends with Susan’s mother, Verona, whom we also cared for.  Through high school and beyond, Meg had keys to our house and our cars, and it was immediately clear to everyone who was in charge as she walked through the door.

We enjoyed an evolution in our relationship, where Meg was less of a babysitter and more of a friend. We enjoyed vacations together, took road trips together and drank wine long into the night. Meg and Susan became best friends and their best of friendship endured till the very end.

Eileen was born 13 years ago. Meg often said that she would parent Eileen “just like a fifth McConnell baby” and we couldn’t have been more flattered. Even as a little one, Eileen blended right into the mix with the vacations and road trips. Four years ago, Meg and Eileen even moved to Barrington from Chicago, in an effort to escape the Chicago Public Schools, and we were able to see them both all the time. It has been so much fun.

                     Meg O'Doherty and Ashley McConnell giving Eileen her bottle when Eileen was a baby. The year was 2003.  

Meg O’Doherty and Ashley McConnell giving Eileen her bottle when Eileen was a baby. The year was 2003.

As A Long Swim became more serious, it was perfectly natural that Meg become more involved. As a preparatory swim for the English Channel in 2011, we signed up for the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, a 24-mile south to north trek through that body of water. Susan and the kids were there, and she had a phone conversation with Meg the evening before. “We could really use you on the crew for this swim,” Susan said, “we’re going to have our hands full.”

The next morning, Meg showed up to join the crew for the swim. It was the most natural thing in the world. Everyone was learning, but Meg quickly took control. Feeding cycles, stroke counting, log book entries and keeping people happy and upbeat but out of the hot sun – Meg just figured it out. Her involvement kept everyone organized and focused. Susan said afterward, “I think we have our hands on the best project manager in the world. Meg will be our Navigator.”

So, it was self-evident that Meg would also manage the English Channel crew a few months later. Of course, much of the excitement of the swim was the fact that we traveled to England and France. What we hadn’t bargained for was the fact that we swam the Channel the day after we arrived in England.  We hadn’t counted on the fact that our boat would have a stowaway, and that stowaway would be the youngest English Channel crew member ever.  Eileen.

We were all terribly jet-lagged, but poor Eileen was really feeling under the weather after the flight. Our extended family hadn’t arrived, so it looked like Eileen would also have to join the crew. There was a bit of hair-on-fire scrambling as we all prepared to swim, and Meg was her typical calming self.  When we arrived, with all of our kids + Eileen, our boat pilot, the famous Lance Oram, took one look at us and said, “Who are all these kids?”  Meg had nestled Eileen into the bunch, so she wouldn’t be as noticed, and I said, “This is our crew.”  I’ll never forget looking at them, all wide eyed with non-matching coats and hats, like the professional crews have.  I’m sure Lance thought that A Long Swim would be A Short Swim and he would make his money and that would be that.  He had no idea how seriously trained this crew was.  Eileen, by the way, had just turned 8 years old.

We made it across the English Channel and then went on to spend two weeks in England together. We took all of our kids, including Eileen, to every castle throughout South East England. We had dinner at English pubs.  We even took the ferry from Dover to France and found our landing spot and celebrated together on the beach. We made unforgettable memories.

 Meg O'Doherty and Bill McConnell on the English Channel.  

Meg O’Doherty and Bill McConnell on the English Channel.

 Eileen on the English Channel.  

Eileen on the English Channel.

 Eileen, the stowaway, and the youngest crew member to ever cross the English Channel.  

Eileen, the stowaway, and the youngest crew member to ever cross the English Channel.

A Long Swim has enjoyed many other successes since then. Meghan O’Doherty has managed the crew for all of the swims, including the New York Triple Crown Swim.  Not having her for future swims will leave us terribly handicapped. In fairness, the A Long Swim team is now as experienced as any marathon swimming crew anywhere in the world, but the challenge is to be able to handle the unexpected. At that, Meg was an absolute master.

My favorite image of Meg is one that is seared into my mind. We were in the latter stages of the English Channel swim. We had been at it for several hours and the waves had brutalized all of us. Most of the teammates, including Meg, had been violently ill. It was after midnight, and it was darker than anything that any of us had ever experienced. We were on a feeding stop, and I looked up to the top deck of the escort boat, and I saw Meg.

She was sitting at a flybridge, and was bundled up in a heavy jacket. On her arm, she had three digital watches, each of which were keeping track of different key statistics and intervals. She had the log book with a reading lamp in front of her, and was calling directions to everyone on the crew, all while keeping an eye on Eileen. She was Leonard Bernstein directing the symphony orchestra, and the harmony was perfect. As maestro, Meg had everything coordinated and under control.

Best of all, I could see her smile all the way from the water’s surface in the dead of night. It was the same smile I remembered from the 12 year old girl I had met so many years before. She was obviously having the time of her life, and she turned to me in the water to ask how I was doing. I don’t have any idea what I said, but what I remember was that smile and her sparkling eyes and how reassured they made me feel.

Those sparkling eyes got us across the English Channel. It is those sparkling eyes that will make me smile every time I think of her. The world will be dimmer without that sparkle, but we are so grateful that we were able to have Meghan in our family as long as we did.

Bon voyage, dear friend. We love you and we will miss you like crazy. There will never be anyone like you.  

Here’s one more video of Meg in charge on the New York Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. We’re going to miss you forever Meg! 

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