The Things You Do For Love … And Then There Was One

Out of four crew members, our kids, the quietest won an award.

Mack, stuck on a plane.

Bill, down for the count, sea sick.

Ashley, down for the count, sea sick.

Bill, the protective one, as he was about to go down, made sure that Gordy was at the helm and instructed him to never give up. “He needs to see someone every time he looks up here. It’s you Gordy.”

Gordy did just that. He even had fun. I remember seeing him allowing the boat to toss him around and waving his hands like a bird. I remember seeing him eating a sandwich on deck. The only one on the boat to eat, anything. I remember hearing him sing to the boat captain’s surprisingly American music. I remember him getting mad at me when things were getting tough. “What are we doing here? This is not safe. What if something happens to him.”

When it was all said and done Doug recounted that every time he looked up he saw Gordy. Out of 40,538 strokes, one half of which were 20,269 turns to the right side looking up, it was Gordy, the 3rd son, the smallest of the three, standing tall. Doug gave him the award of MVP of A Long Swim. And on the wall of the White Horse, that historic bar in Dover where all channel swimmers sign their names, Doug made sure that the world would know.

Under The Same Moon

One month ago while we were out in the dark English Channel the moon was exactly l/2 and as orange as Halloween, just like tonight. We saw a million little stars that wouldn’t show up on the camera. But we tried. The lights of Calais, France were flickering and dancing and seemed most welcoming, although we were headed to a dark, little beach south of that. Doug’s night goggles blinked red on both sides of his head and, when it was working, the light on his bum matched.

Here’s a video of the night …

A few days later we traveled, on one of those larger-than-life ferries, to that dark, little beach. What looked that night like a sad, little nothing of a place ended up looking like this by the light of day …

So, we’re home and settled. The kids have so much homework still that I’m sure it’ll affect their grades. Doug’s been on cloud nine and those who have swum the channel have assured him that the cloud number never changes. “It’s a life long benefit.” His business is exploding and the door bell is still ringing. When his mother rides her bike to the grocery store she says she can barely make it through for all the talk, talk, talk.

There are lots of unseen photographs and video to go through as time slows down and fall begins to set.

I’ll have more to report as time goes on about this swim and others coming up. In the meantime, Doug has his eye on the next swim. A short 26 miles from Catalina to Long Beach. And so the preparation begins. He just bought tee shirts for the boys as Christmas presents. (Don’t worry, the boys couldn’t be less interested in this blog.)

Photography … Like Playing Chess On A Bobsled

Photographing and taking video on a boat in the English Channel. No pressure. My backpack was full of every camera I owned as well as those new video cameras, including the one that could go underwater.

Here’s a short video taken from the galley of the boat which was a place where I could brace myself and use my equipment.

A lot of the seven hours where we had light were “the shit hit the fan” type of moments. We were holding on with both hands and taking it all in. While there was chaos all around us trying to focus on something very narrow, taking pictures, was like the polo player managing the huge animal underneath him while he tries to hit a little, tiny ball. Or like trying to play chess on a bobsled. The deck of our boat was heaving so that in order to get from one side to the other we needed to crawl. There was so much going on that I was, honestly, overwhelmed.

Through it all I did “see” things and, while I only got 427 shots before the sun went down, I got what I think is the best photograph of my life. This was taken just as the sun was setting and just was the water was calming down. When I took it I knew something special had just happened.

I learned from one of the world’s best photographers, Alison Shaw, that the best time to use your camera is when the sun is coming up and when the sun is going down. I didn’t even realize the sun was about to set until I looked at that Sea France boat and saw that it was pink and glowing. Alison’s name immediately came to my mind and I shot away. This “Sea France” photograph was the last photograph I took before the sun set that day. I have a series of 6 of these images and the one you see above is the signature shot from this endeavor.

However, this one is pretty cool too because if you look closely enough you can see that Doug had just put on his night goggles, in anticipation of the setting sun. We were about to enter seven hours of darkness.

And Then There Were Three

When you’re going to swim the English Channel you GO when your boat pilot says GO. Even if it means your whole team has not arrived. Mack, our oldest, was literally scheduled on the next flight from San Francisco to London. He arrived in Dover eight hours after the swim was complete. When Doug’s coach, Marcia Cleveland, warned us about the things we weren’t going to be able to control it never occured to me that this would be one of those things. Here’s what it meant …

From: Mack McConnell
To: Doug McConnell
Sent: Sun Aug 21 14:13:30 2011
Subject: Today’s the day!

Dad,
You’re swimming right now. According to mom’s texts, She, Billy and Ashley have already tossed their cookies a couple of times. Being seasick sucks, but let it be at testament to the strength of your team. We’re all here for you.

I’m watching you swim, too. Except, to me, you look a lot like a blip on Google Maps. And I can’t see the waves from here, but I hear they’re pretty gnarly.

An airport is the last place I want to be watching you do this. In fact, I’d much rather be throwing up over the side of the boat on the channel. But, I’ll be there soon enough and I’m pretty excited about it.

I’m so proud of you for doing this. You wanted to do it, you said you’d do it, you brought everyone along on the journey and now you’re doing it. It’s like when Babe Ruth pointed his bat into the stands, and put the ball right where he said he’d put it.

I know you have an idea of the impact you’ve had on your team since you’ve started A Long Swim, but I have a feeling you’ll never know how much it’s particularly affected Me, Billy, Gordy and Ashley. It’s completely inspiring to watch not only what you did, but how you did it with such humility and grace. You are changing what the McConnell identity is all about; actually, you just made being a McConnell the coolest thing ever.

For us, accomplishing what we want has never been more clear. Rather than hitting the ball as hard as you can and hoping it ends up in the stands, you’ve got to point to the stands and do whatever it takes to put your ball there.

Right now, I’m learning, one Google Map blip at a time, that I can do anything I want to do. All I have to do is point my bat and know that I can.

I love you,

Mack

Not having Mack with us was a curse and a blessing. Mack is the quiet leader of the four kids. While encouraging them to keep their identities, all of our kids have different parents, after all, he sets a fine example for them and he holds their feet to the fire when he has to. We needed him to be with us on that boat.

But, because Mack wasn’t there, his brothers took on a role they may not have otherwise. Interesting. More on that later. Stay tuned.

Here’s the whole lot of them a couple of days after the swim. See the guy in the green? He’ll never be the same.

Thank You Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg

On this charming, technology-laden fishing boat in the middle of the English Channel we must have said the words iPhone and Facebook over and over. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have created technology that has enabled foreign revolutions to assemble and imprisoned hostages to be freed. On a much smaller scale, many of our friends back home were able to be a part of this English Channel challenge and I knew that the 9 of us out on that dark night were not alone. Through my iPhone and Facebook we were able to share so much of special moments of this swim. I couldn’t answer texts much because we were busy but I read every single one that came in out loud.

Some friends realized through Facebook that they were watching independently so decided to watch together and drink champagne.

One friend of ours couldn’t sit still and decided to go to church and get his parish to all pray for us.

My family texted me all night long.

Basically, when things were getting hard our friends were there.

His landing was dark, quiet and uneventful. Getting him back to the boat made me crazy and once he was on board he needed us. I have video of him hugging my arm and not letting go, as if to say just that. I fear I let some people down because I had to put my iPhone away and tend to him. But one of the first things I told him was that you all were watching.

I wasn’t the only one on the boat using an iPhone. Here are the Facebook entries made during the swim by our boat pilot, Lance Oram.

Who You Meet Along The Way … Freda Streeter

Freda Streeter holds court just about every morning in Dover Harbor when swimmers are preparing for their English Channel swims. The mother of Alison Streeter, 43 time English Channel swimmer, sets about being the life guard in charge as swimmers from all over the world come to train in Dover Harbor. Some are planning to swim the Channel, a few have. Some never will but just want to train there.

Every morning I’d tag along as Doug humbly took his place among them. We got to know some interesting people and we saw some interesting things.

This became a regular practice for us until one morning, a few days before we were to return home, we went down there and the beach was silent and empty. We found no one. It was as if the whole thing was a dream. I was reminded of “Midnight in Paris.” And for the next few mornings we would get up early and drive down to Dover Harbor but, each time, nothing.

On our last morning, even though we had lots of packing and logistics ahead of us, Doug was intent on trying one more time. So down we went. My eyes were still squinty from staying up late on our last night as we tried to fill our minds with “one more thing.” We had taken our kids out to dinner at a local restaurant by the sea and videotaped them as we quizzed them on their perspectives. We walked out on a long pier and I was aware of how uncomfortable I was having my family surrounded by water again. But as I looked back at our little English town I remembered that some things are only their most beautiful when being seen from the water.

So in spite of being disappointed on the last few mornings Doug decided to go down to Dover Harbor and go swimming one more time. I sat alone and watched and took pictures. I hadn’t noticed that she was sitting on a bench behind me. Freda Streeter.

Doug got out of the water and saw her and immediately went to her. What happened next was that she held a one on one court with him. She imparted her wisdom about what to do now, now that his swim was “splendid.” What she said was …

“You do not ever come back here. You have done this now and now you move forward. You have the ultimate feather in your cap. You don’t come back here to set a record or improve your time. You have accomplished the hardest swim in the world and you quit while you are ahead. The people will swoop in on you. (She took her arms and swooped them in to herself.) And then they will swoop out. You will need to keep this in perspective. You will need to watch out for depression. Talk to other channel swimmers about this. There are challenging swims all around the world. Always have your eye on one and always have one scheduled. Good luck to you.”

I felt as if I were witnessing something unearthly. As we left, I expected to turn around and find her to have disappeared. But there she sat, looking out at Dover Harbor.

On the plane ride home he took my hand and told me that he was going to make the Catalina swim in August of next year. He said it so peacefully. I think I need to quit my day job.

Who You Meet Along The Way … Roger Allsopp

Every morning we get up early and drive 15 minutes south to Dover Harbor where both the swimmers hoping to swim the English Channel and the few who have swim laps. Just tagging along with my camera I listen and watch and hear stories. Lots of swimmers are there as relay teams, few are soloists, and some wear fancy jackets and hats plastered with their sponsor’s logos. It seems to me, however, that the most serious are just regular people without logos attached.

One guy who had been waiting for his chance to swim was Roger Allsopp. He wears a cap that bears the name of his swim club back home in Guernsey. He swam the channel 5 years ago at the age of 65. He was the oldest Brit on record to have made this accomplishment. Now, he’s here again, at the age of 70 years and 4 months. If he accomplished this swim he’d be the oldest ever, from anywhere. He told us, “I’m trying to be the oldest person to swim the English Channel. But if I have to wait much longer I’m going to be too old!” Roger is a retired breast cancer surgeon and he is using his swim to raise money for state of the art equipment for his hospital. To date he had raised $170,000. He and Doug gravitated toward each other and I suspect that if they lived by each other they’d be friends.

I bet they’ll always be friends anyway. Because now they belong to the same club. Early this morning Roger finished his swim. He ran into complications that made us wonder all night long how he was doing. His boat did not have a GPS tracking system like Doug’s. He got very close to Cap Gris Nez and the tide got a hold of him forcing him to swim in place for about 6 hours before the tide let him reach across to France. His time was 17 hours and 53 minutes. Yup, you’re reading this right. A 70 year old swam 18 hours and crossed the English Channel. In all he swam a total of 40 miles.

We leave here in three days and I wonder if one of these mornings Roger will make it back down to Dover Harbor. If he does I’ll be there with my camera. And I bet the cheers will be heard all the way over in France.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

Oh, and those five support boats we saw with five swimmers a few days ago when we took a ferry boat to France? Not one of them made it.