Sep 28, 2011

Swim Lessons - Life Lessons from Swimming

Swim Lessons – Teaching our kids to learn from Disappointment
By Don Macdonald

Teaching our kids to cope with disappointment.

Three years old frozen at the edge of the pool, counting one, two, two and half, two and three quarters then three, whoosh I yell to my parents as I jump in the water. I had just taken my first stroke in a long journey to swim the English Channel.

Now in Junior High, an adolescent struggling in school my parents enroll me in clubs and sports so I may do well, build self esteem and become resilient. At 4’11” I learn basketball and football are not for me, too slow for track, choir and band are OK but somehow find my way back to water.

Many successes and failures behind me, I am sitting in a familiar place after two and a half years of training, at the edge of a body of water this time the English Channel. Thousands of miles swum under every conceivable condition - freezing 60f water, jellyfish, darkness, sharks, huge waves, spinal damage and even family tribulations only a parent appreciates. Every detail planned – I am prepared. I find myself facing a familiar challenge… one, two, three… but this time its bad weather turning minutes into hours, hours into days. I grow increasingly anxious hope fading as wind and rain sweeps ‘La Manche’. A full week passes and my opportunity to swim the English Channel this season fades away. I am crushed.  

While we most often think of resiliency as a virtue that helps us react to challenges and disappointments it also proactively supports our lives. Before I left for Dover I knew the chance for success was illusive as weather blows-out over 50% of all attempts and that success rates of those that get their chance is less than 20%. This is why Doug McConnell, my friend and training partner’s success is so sweet and my disappointment while quietly understood is so humbling. Yet just getting there and being prepared is a success that will have to be enough for now. Some things you just cannot control.

Without resiliency we are content to play it small; play it safe; hide from the world, protecting ourselves from being hurt thus removing ourselves from joy, excitement, and satisfaction. It’s something you have to earn like jumping in the water, taking that first stroke or watching your friend swim the English Channel, One Stroke At A Time.

Resiliency is a learned virtue that comes from repeated exposure to success, disappointment and failure. We need to teach our children to try things on their own, that it is OK fail, and experience negative emotions like sadness, frustration and fear. It is equally important to persist in the face of failure. As we get older we bounce back from our disappointments, overcome temptations to quit, face embarrassment from failure and accept praise graciously while not gloating on our successes (which in this age of social media is all too easy).

There’s no shortage of hand wringing these days about the effects of coddling our kids, uninvolved parents or the dangers of overzealous ones. This concern over kids “getting soft” rewarded for everything is easily spin on an age old criticism leveled by each and every generation (“Back in my day…”) but for a child to take chances, they must feel safe and supported so they can take that first stroke.

As a parent, a resilient spirit is one of the greatest gifts you must demonstrate and share with your child. It is a set of learned skills that will help them do better in school and work, have healthier relationships, and live a happier, and maybe even longer life. It’s the key to helping them reach their potential like my parents and teachers did for me all those years ago.

Not everyone can be a winner all the time, but trying our best and how we cope with disappointment is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.  Quiting is not in my vocabulary.

I am happy to share my experience with groups in person or with kids at school functions geared towards building resiliency, drop me a line at ''

Sep 15, 2011

Friends all over the world! Wow

I was writing some thank you notes to the many kind and supportive blog posts on 'One Stroke At A Time' from my recent weather inflicted EC postponement and learned my experience apparently touched a few more people than I ever thought possible across the globe. I am humbled by this..I am not sure what it is folks find so interesting perhaps the honest views or maybe just to share a bucket list dream, who knows. Here is the list of friends by country so far.

I have many more adventures, will return to Dover and encourage others to seek their dreams and share them knowing that we can only take 'One Stroke At A Time' getting there..

Friends by Country
United States
United Kingdom

Sep 8, 2011

English Channel hopes dashed by bad weather - "Resiliency comes to those that are patient and wait

My hope of swimming the English Channel this season was dashed by mother nature. 

The weather was not with me when my tide window opened August 20th and then closed August 27th. If one were to have endless resources I suppose waiting for weeks on end, as some do, is just part of the experience. A challenging ending this time fraught with expectations, hopes and mixed emotions for me and my family. 

Here are some day-by-day highlights and pictures to share the experience. The day I arrived August 17th, I jumped into a sunny, warm (63f) and calm Dover Harbor which made for a wonderful swim, setting a very positive tone for what I hoped were the days ahead. Here are some of those first day pictures prior to my swim window opening.

Dover Harbor
Chalk hills above Dover

Three days later, August 20th came around and you can see below the typical day from that point forward. there were days with some breaks in the clouds, rain and wind coming intermittently but these usually came with choppy seas. Some of the nicer days that followed thus were already booked up by others waiting patiently before me, in some cases weeks. 

Some of these folks made attempts and failed unfortunately very early into their swims, thus allowing my training partner Doug McConnell to get his shot almost the day he arrived. Doug was successful in his swim ending it just as the mixed weather moved into the Channel late night near the end of his swim with 5-6 foot swells. This has been one of his life long dreams - congratulations Doug and you earned it!

EC on a nice day 3-5ft consistent waves
To the untrained eye, the sea can be deceiving especially from this vantage point above on shore (sorry for the landscape view). It may look calm but you would be quite surprised to learn these are 3 plus foot swells in-shore and further out much bigger. I learned that the biggest challenge is figuring out when to take 'your shot' is forecasting when the sea is not all mixed up and choppy. Winds pushing in the opposite direct as the tide and swells from the open ocean. I learned from our legendary Captain Mike Oram and his son that during our stay in Dover mixed weather forecasts had been the norm for this season. On-shore forecasts different from marine forecasts different from what they call MET data or meterological's.  

Just to show how weather conditions change quickly. This is a video clip was taken by someone also blown out of their swim from just outside Dover Harbor September 6th, a few days after I left England.

So seconds turned to minutes, minutes to hours, hours to days, restless nights of uneven sleep into the next day and so on. Trying to keep ones mind off what seemed to be the endless waiting was not easy and in retrospect probably (as a newbie channel swimmer) the worst part despite having been told this by our great coach Marcia Cleveland over and over. I am a pretty laided back guy but this threw me it took several days for things final began to sink in and relax. 

Even though I know I was ready, hard core trained, cold water and all, this time was like being in prison. "Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it"...

This is the game of swimming the English channel. No pitty allowed. Many others suffered the same fate as I this season and ultimately it comes down to how much time and money you can afford to wait around for the window of opportunity. These will be good lessons for next time.

The saving grace for me was having my family there, knowing friends, teammates and folks back home were supporting me with emails of all sorts of fun and hilarious comments and best wishes like below. 

Rachel and Jennifer my steadfast safety and feeding crew always keen to protecting me through these many long swims I am sure share my disappointment and inner frustration although they never verbalized it. I know they too were anxious about what lay ahead in Dover. 
BAM jokers

Comforting me near the end of my window of opportunity was a once in a life time surprise my sister Katie Macdonald Smith (who is actually the more gifted and famous swimmer of the family) and husband Ted who organized flying her and my parents all the way from San Francisco to Dover renting a house not even 100 yards from ours. In the end, despite my personal disappointment this was a wonderful time as a family that I will cherish the rest of my life. Thanks you too!

Don & Jean Macdonald
Katie, Mom and Jennifer


For everyone in the 220 School District, Barrington, IL, Goshen, IN (my childhood hometown), friends, teammates, family and especially the 220 Foundation I cannot thank you enough for the honor of sharing this Journey these past months. Today there are overover 6000 friends and counting, each learning sharing and I hope through my experiences, successes and failures perhaps each of us has learned to be a but more resilient. 

Some have said to me along the way - why are you doing this? Why are you sharing this Journey so publicly, exposing yourself and taking such personal risk to ones ego. My answer then and now is simply because I can. My parents and teachers took the time to teach me how to be resilient, work hard, invest myself into something. Teaching kids (and parents) that failure is simply a different direction is the first step to teaching one to be resilient. 

A resilient athlete and student understands how to train and master the body, heart and mind in the pursuit of excellence. Ego driven pursuits are always ephemeral.

No different - A resilient child/student acquires similar life skills through practice. Putting their formal training and life's aspirations to work through success and failure. Starting young, resilience is learned and quickly becomes an intuitive life-long skill when supported by strong, emotionally connected friends, family and parents whom are engaged in the many aspects of their lives.

Thanks for sharing with me all these months your warm and kind wishes. I hope we have learned something together on this Journey. there will be more 'One Stroke At A Time adventures to come so stay tuned. 

I will take my shot again some day and perhaps like 'Doc Councilmen' the famous Indiana University Swim coach, maybe I too could someday be the oldest the cross the English Channel ....but I think much sooner:)

So what's your dream? 

 "Dream big and set your goals ridiculously high and if you fail, you will have failed above everyone else's success. Successful people fail more often than succeed, but they never quit and neither should you"
Keep taking 'One Stroke At A Time' - Don