Doug McConnell had just polished off a big greasy plate of fish and chips while in Dover, England, when the call came.
"Can you swim the English Channel tomorrow?" he was asked.
Of course, he could swim it, McConnell thought. He knew he was ready. The 53-year-old Chicago-area investment banker had been training for the notoriously difficult trek from Dover to the French port of Calais for more than two years. Part of that training was disrupted by a severely herniated disc in his neck that required a cervical disc replacement, made by Fridley-based Medtronic Inc.
On Sunday, McConnell swam across the 30-mile channel in 14 hours, 18 minutes -- the 48th person over the age of 50 to swim the Channel. "I'm a little sore, a little beaten down, but pretty good overall," he said the next day.
McConnell decided to try the Channel swim as a way of raising money for ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a neurodegenerative disease that claimed his father, David, in 2006. Ultimately, he hooked up with the Les Turner ALS Foundation's research program at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and raised more than $130,000 to benefit the Skokie, Ill.-based foundation.
"It's just fabulous," Wendy Abrams, executive director of the ALS foundation, said of McConnell's accomplishment. "Doug is amazing."
But McConnell's feat almost didn't happen after he was diagnosed two years ago with the herniated disc that was rendering his left arm nearly useless. He opted for a cervical disc replacement using a Medtronic device. He was back in the pool six weeks later.
McConnell said he expected to swim the Channel this Thursday or Friday, but a slot opened up for Sunday at 1 p.m. English time. The first 10 hours of the swim were a bit rough, with choppy waters and 5-foot waves. The Channel is notorious for its multitude of jellyfish, but McConnell said he was stung only once on his chest "by a little one, maybe two-thirds of the way there."
Though in a busy shipping channel, McConnell said he was only "vaguely aware" of two big ferries that passed him en route to France. His wife, Susan, and four kids (Mack, Billy, Gordy and Ashley) cheered him throughout the trek from a companion boat nearby. The 63-degree water grew a bit chilly by the end of his swim, a sandy beach just south of Calais.
The lifelong swimmer says he counted strokes to stem boredom, completing the swim after 40,538 strokes. He stands among elite company -- roughly 1,200 people have completed the swim since 1875.
Meanwhile, the donations keep coming in, as McConnell blogged about his experience while training (www.alongswim.com/ a-long-swim). Medtronic offered its support by kicking in a $50,000 matching donation.
Abrams expects McConnell's fund to reach the $150,000 mark in no time. The money will help fund long-standing research by Dr. Teepu Siddique, a neuroscientist with Northwestern University's medical school whose work is supported by the foundation.
In a stroke of good timing, Siddique and his team announced on Monday that they had discovered the cause of ALS, opening a realm of possibilities for a new treatment. In addition, the research may provide clues for treating other neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Researchers said Siddique's research could lead to new drugs being developed to treat ALS, for which there is no cure. The Northwestern researcher has been searching for the causes of ALS for a quarter of a decade. The team traced the underlying cause of the disease to a breakdown in the neurons of the spinal cord and brain.
"These people in the prime of their lives and the peak of their productivity get this devastating illness and it kills them," he said in a statement Monday.
Medtronic's toolkit of medical devices doesn't include a treatment for ALS. But in an interview last spring, Medtronic Spinal Vice President Pat Wilson said he hopes the partnership with McConnell will "result in increased understanding of this devastating disease."
Janet Moore 612-673-7752