A 57-year-old American who twice survived cancer is bidding to become the first person ever to swim the length of the River Shannon.
Dean Hall set off on this remarkable challenge at the northern tip of Lough Allen on June 5.
He reached Athlone at lunchtime on Wednesday, June 21, and seemed perfectly composed and relaxed when he spoke to the Westmeath Independent shortly after getting out of the water at Athlone Castle.
Dean readily acknowledged the mammoth scale of his task. “To Ironman triathletes, three miles of swimming is a marathon, so I’m averaging two and sometimes three marathons a day, and will do so for almost thirty days,” he said.
“It is taxing, but I’ve found that with marathon swimming, as with cancer recovery and life, we are much more limitless than we would ever consider.
“We put limits on ourselves mostly because of fear we have, or because of what other people tell us is our limit. Once we take those limits off ourselves, and let our bodies and our minds do what they were created to do, we can do nearly anything.
“I am nothing special. I was never an Olympian or anything. So if a guy like me can do it, just about anybody can.”
Along the way Dean is raising money for an Irish charity, the Childhood Cancer Foundation, which helps to fund services for children and families affected by childhood cancer.
The Portland, Oregon, native first completed a major swimming challenge in his home State in 2014, when he became the first person to swim the 184 miles of the Willamette River. He said the Shannon was proving to be a much tougher to swim than the Willamette.
“That was a pleasure cruise compared to the Shannon, other than that it was much, much colder,” he explained.
“There was a one to two-mile an hour, and sometimes three mile-an-hour, current the whole way so I felt like an Olympian (on the Willamette River). I was doing twelve miles a day, and when I was doing that swim I was still an active cancer patient, so I wasn’t as fit as I am now.
“This time I’ve had to earn every kilometre, for sure. But it’s beautiful. It’s an absolutely gorgeous river.”
He had not been to Ireland before, so why did he choose the Shannon?
“In Portland around the 1900s we had so many Irish move in because the geography and the weather is much the same. Most of us had grandparents or great-grandparents who were Irish, so we grew up hearing of the old country,” he replied.
“Ireland always sounded like the place of dreams and magic, so after my first long swim I wanted to do another long swim, one that hadn’t been done, and I thought of Ireland. I became acquainted with the Shannon and went from there.”
He said he and his family were overwhelmed by the welcome they received here and his daughter, Bre, who is leading him in a kayak throughout the swim, has decided to stay for a year to do a Master's degree at American College Dublin.
“She’s thrilled that she chose Ireland because everyone has been so generous and friendly. We feel like we’re home. Strangers become friends and friends become family. It’s been that, in only two weeks. It’s been wonderful.”
The challenges posed by the Shannon meant the swim was taking longer than expected. When making preparations, Dean anticipated that he would finish in Limerick in late June. “After about one hour on Lough Allen I knew that was out the window!” he smiled.
“We thought Lough Allen would take us five hours, but it took us ten because of the wind and the currents. We found out very quickly that the Shannon wasn’t exactly what we thought it was, it was a lot more challenging, and so we had to follow the coastline all the way down.
“What we didn’t realise is there aren’t a lot of public access points to the Shannon, so if I got tired and wanted to get out for the day, I couldn’t. We just had to make it to our destination.”
He said the reeds in the river had also made things difficult. “Up in Drumsna and Jamestown, for a while, the only place for me to rest was on the markers. I was hanging like a monkey off the markers, and I knew I couldn’t do that for 150 miles.”
Dean said the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) then came on board to assist, which was a huge help.
“I don’t know what we would have done on Lough Ree without the support of the IWAI. It’s massive. We certainly wouldn’t have got through Lough Ree in three days without them. I think it was only 12 or 13 hours of swimming to get from Lanesboro to Athlone.”
He said the IWAI was to continue to leading him downstream of the town, and Athlone Sub Aqua was also providing assistance. “I’m actually in a river now, something that looks and feels like a river. When you come in at Athlone you notice just a tiny little bit of current, so that was nice.
“The next major challenge will be getting through Lough Derg, but Lough Ree treated us really well, so I’m hoping for the best.”
Dean is currently making his way through Lough Derg and is hoping to complete his Shannon challenge in the next few days. He has a website and blog called 'Swimming In Miracles' and, as we parted, he summed up his philosophy on life.
“My approach to life is that there are miracles all around us every day, we just need to start looking for them. When we actually start looking for them we notice that they’re all around us – we’re actually swimming in them. My life has proven that.
“A guy like me should not be able to do what I’m doing. I’ve recovered from leukaemia and lymphoma not once but twice, without chemo or radiation.
“One of the greatest miracles lately is just how the Irish people have welcomed us and been so generous. We haven’t found anyone who has been discouraging,” he said.
* Updates on Dean's swim are being posted on the 'Swimming In Miracles' Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Swimming-In-Miracles-264554240389114/). More details about the Childhood Cancer Foundation can be found at: www.childhoodcancer.ie