Athlone swimmer conquers Lough Ree

Story by Deirdre Verney

Wednesday, 22nd August, 2012 5:30pm

Athlone swimmer conquers Lough Ree

Jim O'Connor comes out of the water after becoming the first person to solo swim the length of Lough Ree last weekend.

An incredible 50,000 plus strokes from Lanesboro to Athlone.

That's what local man Jim O'Connor completed to become the first ever person to solo swim the length of Lough Ree on Saturday last.

The marathon journey began at 6am at the bridge in Lanesboro, before a gruelling 33.91 kilometres of the lake and a full 13 hours and 34 minutes later, he arrived in Athlone to a rapturous reception at the finish line beside Sean's Bar.

Reflecting on his magnificent achievement yesterday (Tuesday), Jim (50) admits much of the swim is still a blur for him as he struggles to put the event, held to raise funds for South Westmeath Hospice, into words.

He says it was very emotional at the conclusion for everyone involved in the challenge after eight months of intensive training paid off handsomely.

For a week beforehand however, the big worry was the weather and whether it would allow him to even attempt the Lough Ree Challenge.

As it happened, the gods were smiling on Jim and organisers as Saturday turned out to be a sunny, dry day, but that still presented problems with high winds on the open waters.

"It got very tough, I had two foot waves going into my face for a long time. That was hard on the head," Jim, who runs O'Connor's Memorials on the Dublin Road with his brother, recalls of the swim challenge.

"I started off flying, I did the first kilometre in 12 minutes and the second in 13, but once you got out in the open lake it was basically one kilometre every half hour. Six hours into it I faced very tough weather," Jim says, praising his boat crew and Liam Sheringham for giving him the straightest line to swim and egging him on when the going got tough. "There were a few expletives thrown in but we won't say anything about that," the Retreat resident jokes.

The most difficult point came as he tried to get past Inchmore and Inchturk islands, he remembers. "I'm used to them from training so I thought to myself I'm nearly home.

"You're lying to yourself, saying come on, you're strong you can do it. I told the crew there was no way I was getting out of the water, I was going down before I was going out," he says bullishly.

"There was never going to be a case of giving up.

"I had great support on the day. The Viking boat came beside me and cheered me on, that gave me a great boost. When I did get to Athlone I couldn't believe the crowd and the cheering. It was astounding, the reception I got. I couldn't believe it."

"I remember coming out and wondering 'Are they crying because I got out'. It really was a wonderful feeling of relief, even though it's still a bit blurry," he says, thanking his wife Joanne and his four children, Niamh, Hannah, Jack and Charlie for their wonderful support for his endeavours, and in particular, his coach Dave Warby, who ensured he was well prepared.

"I never felt the cold at all. The training really stood to me that way."

Although his legs were like jelly getting out of the water, he says after a half hour he felt much better, so much so that after a rest on Sunday night he was in work on Monday!

Although a little disappointed with his time as he was hoping to do it in under twelve hours, Jim laughs that this was just his competitive side coming out and with the weather conditions that kind of time just wasn't possible.

Now, taking a few well-earned days off, Jim admits he's contemplating his next challenge as he sets his sights on mastering the English Channel in August 2014.

The event, held to raise funds for South Westmeath Hospice, has already raised several thousand euro so far, and Jim expects a full figure to be available shortly.

He explains a huge amount of people made his swim possible, singling out for particular mention, his unreal boat crew of David Warby, also his coach, Olaf O'Neill, Dr Mike Brody, Liam Sheringham and Matt Harte. He also thanked the organising committee of Grainne O'Neill, Denise Dolan, John Bruton and Charlie Naughton, along with assisting boats provided by Denis Begley, Derek Farrell and Stephen O'Reilly.

Also, big thanks to Michael McDonnell from the Viking Boat, who sponsored a boat trip for a large group of local people to journey alongside Jim and the team, Junior Hannon and the scout troop of kayakers, the Athlone Sub-Aqua Club, Padraig Cooke, staff at the Athlone Regional Sports Centre and all the morning swimmers who helped him during his training.

Jim also paid tribute this week to all of the swimmers who swam one kilometre behind him for charity, all of the fundraisers, Dave Seery, Slice of Life for food provisions, Garrycastle Spar, Croughan's Centra, Gala, Jameson's Meat Shop, Spectrum Signs, Emer Dunne, who provided physiotherapy free of charge and Caitriona Hodgkins who sponsored nutritional advice, neighbours, friends and family.

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