All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2003

Downstream dream

Thu, Nov. 20, 2003
Rick Shefchik
Pioneer Press

Nick Irons knows very few people ever have dreams as daunting as his: to swim the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to Baton Rouge, La.

But after accomplishing his dream in 1997, he doesn't see any reason why almost any dream can't be realized.

That's the premise of his new book, "Swim Lessons," which is partly a narrative of how he became the second person in 70 years to swim almost the entire length of the longest river in the United States and partly a self-help book on how to conceive, organize and achieve almost any goal.

The book is also part of Irons' continuing effort to raise money and awareness for the cause of multiple sclerosis, the reason he undertook his historic swim in the first place (his father John has had MS for years).

"It's different because it is both an adventure story a family working to do something for someone they love and a self-help book," says Irons, who is on a nationwide tour to promote the book and will appear in the Twin Cities this weekend.

"What we have found is that people are reading it for whichever of those reasons really touches them," Irons says. "They really want to figure out how to make a dream come true; it appeals to people who want to help MS; and people who want an adventure story."

Though Irons and his family began as total neophytes in the PR business, they eventually accumulated the skill and persistence necessary to draw attention to their story. In "Swim Lessons," Irons details how the same kind of planning and persistence can work with almost any project to make a dream come true.

Irons received a remarkable amount of publicity when he undertook his 1,500-mile swim, which began June 1, 1997, at St. Paul's Watergate Marina. ABC's "Good Morning America" had a crew at the jump-off point, along with reporters from the Associated Press, local newspapers and television stations. Irons gave weekly updates to WCCO Radio and to a TV station in Washington, D.C., where he lives.

The swim was a splashing success. He managed to beat his estimated time of completion by two weeks so he could get out of the water for the last time in Baton Rouge on his father's birthday, an arrival chronicled by People magazine and other national media outlets. In the process, he raised $150,000 to help fight MS.


Irons, who was 25 when the swim began, considered beginning his journey at Lake Itasca, in order to swim the entire length of the river, but he ultimately settled on a Twin Cities departure.

"My parents grew up in South Minneapolis," Irons says. "My dad went to the University of Minnesota, and my mom lived there till she went to Marquette for college. If you ask them where they're from, they'll always say Minneapolis. I have grandparents, aunts and uncles who live in the area, so there was a strong family connection.

"The other reason was more a logistical part. We thought it would be tough to get a boat to go all the way up to Itasca to follow us down."

Irons knew his brother Andy would be leading him in a rubber dinghy for the length of the trip, but the bigger issue was locating a powerboat to follow them for safety and transportation. At seemingly the last minute, they found the United States Power Squadrons, a group of boat owners who gladly agreed to tag-team with each other to accompany Irons down the river.

Once that important detail was taken care of, the rest was up to Irons, a high school and college swimmer who trained for months to take on Big Muddy.

And muddy it was though Irons says he didn't dwell on the Mississippi's water quality or lack thereof.

"I couldn't tell that much," he says. "When I jumped in the very first day, I was struck by the fact that I could only see six inches in front of me. So I knew from that day on, I wouldn't be able to see. I might have gone a little crazy if I focused on what I was swimming in."

The most difficult part of the trip was trying to plow through Lake Pepin.

"It really was different," Irons recalls. "We pretty much hit three days of big waves. I understand Lake Pepin is relatively shallow, and with the wind right there, once the waves start, there's no stopping them. The combination of the waves and the lack of current made three of the toughest days of the whole trip.

"Also because the channel goes right through the middle of the lake, it was a little eerie to me looking off to the side and seeing the bank a mile away on either side like I was in the middle of a huge body of water, with no way to get my bearings. I will say that Pepin was one of the more beautiful places. You could see the bluffs way off in the distance, see eagles flying overhead it was absolutely beautiful, but tough, tough swimming."

Once he got through Lake Pepin, the current once again became an ally.

"It helped, it sped me along, but when it came down to it, I was still swimming for six hours a day," Irons said. "Even with a huge current, I was still stroking for six hours a day, always."


As tough as it was physically, Irons says the biggest challenge was mental. Every morning, he had to get back into the water, whether he wanted to or not. Some days, he didn't want to. And some days, he wanted to get out well before he was physically spent.

"Whenever that happened, I just really had to remind myself why I was doing the swim in the first place," Irons says.

He tells a story in the book about the day they endured a storm that created large waves.

"I was just miserable, feeling awful. I couldn't see my brother Andy in front of me until I swam into the side of his boat. I was bleeding and miserable. He asked if I felt like getting out, and I thought about it for a while. I realized that I wanted to get out I'd had enough but I thought about my dad and his fight with MS. He couldn't end his fight by saying he'd had enough. That was enough to keep me going for 2½ more hours."

With the accumulated expertise his family gathered putting together his swim fund-raiser, Irons pulled off another marathon in 2000, biking 10,000 miles around the perimeter of the United States, again raising money for MS. Now 31, he's a motivational speaker and author who finds other ways to reach his goals.

"What I learned after the swim is that now I have credibility," Irons says. "People know what I've done. There's no need to get on a bike or run or swim anymore."

Best of all, his father is doing well.

"He still has trouble walking, because he has weakness in his legs, but he's busy as a practicing physician an allergist in Washington, D.C. He's just slower than most people. The swim and the bike ride and everything we've done to help, that has helped his whole attitude on the disease."

Irons has learned and hopes to teach that many people can reap benefits from one well-conceived and executed dream.

Copyright © 2003, Pioneer Press