Success is never a solo event.
As I sat on the bank of Lough Allen looking back on where I had just begun. Bleeding and exhausted after the first swim on the first day of my bid to accomplish the impossible dream of being the first person to swim the entire length of the River Shannon, I sat in a stupor. I had mistakenly thought I could easily swim across the bay from my starting point of Corey Strand at the northernmost tip of Loch Allen. A swim I had guessed would be an easy 30-minute warm-up had taken me nearly an hour more. Swept into the middle of the lake by swirling currents and a stiff westerly wind, I couldn’t help but remember Mark Twain’s words, "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure." I had 150 miles to go before my success was sure. Would the power of my confidence have the strength to bear the weight of my ignorance?
After only days of swimming the weight of my ignorance had my confidence in a headlock and was choking it out. Based on my first swim—when I became the first person to swim the entire184-mile length of the Willamette River in my home state of Oregon in 2014 while still an active cancer patient—I thought I could zip through Loch Allen in 4 hours, get to Carrick-On-Shannon by the end of my second day and enter Loch Ree by the end of my first week.
Reality snickered at my over-confidence and slapped my dreams in the face. In reality, Loch Allen took me an exhausting 10 hours to swim and after four arduous days of swimming, I still hadn’t made it to Carrick-On-Shannon. I needed a miracle.
Many times, miracles don’t fall from the sky. They flow from the kindness of strangers. The same ignorance that gnawed at my hope for success would also prove to be a blessing. While I had grossly underestimated the severity of the difficulty of the Shannon, I was soon to find I had equally underestimated the kindness and generosity of the Irish people.
When all seemed lost, we received a call from a lady named Caroline Brennan. She introduced herself as a member of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. Caroline told us that she had heard of our adventure and felt “pulled” to help us in any way she could. We accepted her offer. Little did we know that “helping us in any way she could” meant that over the course of the next four weeks, she would literally spend hours a day, make hundreds of phone calls and recruit some of the most wonderful people we would ever have the pleasure to meet.
She recruited Kay Baxter who also made tireless efforts to not only help us arrange guide boaters and support on the river, but picked up our cause to raise funds and awareness for the Irish charity we had decided to dedicate our efforts toward- The Childhood Cancer Foundation.
What had been an excruciating death march, both psychologically and physically, now became a rather pleasant pleasure-cruise thanks to the efforts of these miracle-workers and the many volunteers from the IWAI. No longer did I have to worry about things like beating through riverbank reeds until I bled just for a rest, where we were, how far we still had to go before we reached our destination for the day, what we would do if the weather whipped up, or most importantly…how on earth were we going to safely make it through Lough Ree and Lough Derg all by ourselves? Instead, all I had to do is swim, smile and leave the navigation and weighty decisions to my newfound friends.
Twenty days later, on July 7, 2017, I swam into Limerick and hugged my new friends, laughed with my new family members and recounted all of the adventures that had taken place to help me become the first person in history to swim the entire length of the River Shannon.
My first record-setting swim of the Willamette was about coming back to life, returning to health, and my refusal to give up hope when all had seemed lost after suffering tragedy. All of these were accomplished by my experiences in the river. The river had become my partner and offered me these gifts.
I had assumed my swim of the River Shannon would be much the same. However, in looking back, this adventure wasn’t about the river, but the steady river of people I met. Strangers became friends and friends became family. This swim offered me gifts for which I didn’t have the wisdom to ask- coming back to a life infused with gratitude, returning to the sort of happiness inspired by overwhelming acts of kindness, and a refusal to give up the belief that the greatest miracles are found in the basic goodness of others. The river of Inland Waterways Association of Ireland members became my partners and offered me these gifts.
My success on the River Shannon was certainly not a solo event. Oh sure! I still had to do my part by swimming 2-3 marathons a day for 25 days (22 of which were in headwinds) but, I will always remember this incredible adventure as a clear example of how simple acts of kindness can change the world. I will never think about my achievement without celebrating the generous spirit of the Irish people and all of my newfound friends who were more than willing to insure that I always had what I needed to keep on SWIMMING IN MIRACLES!