‘If I Can Do It, You Can Do It’: Mass. Amputee Uses Endurance Swim for Awareness
Mike Welsch begins his attempt to swim the length of Lake Sunapee in Georges Mills, N.H., on Aug. 21, 2014.
Valley News-Rob Strong
Mike Welsch begins his attempt to swim the length of Lake Sunapee in Georges Mills, N.H., on Aug. 21, 2014. In the boat with him are Robert Wood of the Lake Sunapee Protective Association and Meg Whittemore.
Valley News- Rob Strong
Newbury, n.h. — Every day, Mike Welsch faces the reality that his own alcohol-related motorcycle crash 35 years ago left him with an amputated lower right leg.
Yet every day he appreciates that he can still walk, run and swim — and he’s got a very active way of demonstrating it.
Welsch, 55, on Thursday completed an end-to-end swim of Lake Sunapee, an eight-mile journey that was only his latest exhibition of endurance. Over the years, the Burlington, Mass., resident has ticked off a huge bucket list of athletic pursuits, including 11 Boston Marathons and dozens of other road races, 18 Pan-Mass Challenge long-distance bike rides, seven Boston Light swim marathons and a total of eight lakes swum in New Hampshire as well as a 14-mile stretch of the Connecticut River.
Welsch started swimming in the Granite State by taking on substantial portions of Lake Winnipasaukee three times, including a 20-mile overnight effort that he used as a vehicle to raise money for the Jimmy Fund cancer research charity. He went on to swim the Connecticut River from North Hartland to Weathersfield with his two children, Ashley and Michael, six years ago, then swam all four of the Connecticut Lakes in northern New Hampshire between 2012 and 2013.
Now, Welsch has a goal to swim the length of every major lake in the Granite State. Sunapee just happened to be next on the list.
“Usually, I just pull up to a lake and say, ‘I’d like to take a swim in that,’ and it turns into swimming the whole thing,” said Welsch, who was 19 years old and enlisted in the U.S. Marines when his life-changing accident occurred in North Carolina. “I do it to let (other amputees) know if I can do it, you can do it. … My accident is something I have to live with for the rest of my life, but I’m fortunate that I’m not in a wheelchair. I easily could have been. I can swim, I can bike, I can run and I like to let other people in my situation know that they can, too.”
Welsch last spring contacted the nonprofit Lake Sunapee Protective Association about his initiative to swim the lake it oversees, and the organization helped facilitate two practice runs of 2-4 miles earlier this summer. On Thursday, teams of four traded off following Welsch in a pontoon boat, offering encouragement and providing him with hydration and protein bars as needed. The boat also transported Welsch’s steel and carbon fiber prosthetic leg — he never swims with it on.
LSPA executive director June Fichter was happy to take part in the mission.
“It was a really unique opportunity to help someone do something like this,” said Fichter, who was on the support boat with her husband, Peter, and mother-son volunteer combination Kristen and Cortland Begor, of Sunapee, when Welsch completed his swim at Newbury Harbor. “We just helped him avoid boat traffic and stay going the right direction, but we didn’t need to do much. He did a great job.”
Leaving just after 9 a.m. from the northern end of Sunapee at Georges Mills on a relatively cool and overcast day, Welsch took his time and conserved his energy while swimming primarily with a freestyle overhand stroke. It was fairly smooth paddling until he struggled a bit with a bend in the lake near the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge, near the Fells historic site and about three-quarters of the way through his journey.
“I had a hard time getting around that corner,” Welsch noted. “I had to put a little bit of muscle into that, and then I picked up the pace for the stretch run. I saw (Bubba’s Restaurant, across the street from Newbury Harbor) start to get bigger and bigger, and I kind of kicked into a new gear mentally and physically.”
After learning of Welsch’s initiative, a small group of well-wishers gathered on the dock to greet him. Arriving at 2:58 p.m., he made a point to grasp the wooden structure emphatically. “At Winnipasaukee, they told me I had to touch the dock or it wouldn’t count,” he joked to the audience.
Emerging from the water under his own power, Welsch fastened his artificial limb and arose for picture-taking with his new friends.
“(Fichter) did an awesome job getting the boat together and organizing a crew to participate,” he said. “These things are always a collaborative effort.”
Welsch gives back in a number of ways. He continues to volunteer with the Pan Mass Challenge, a fundraiser akin to the Prouty that raises money for Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He worked for 13 years for Massachusetts’ Department of Conservation and Parks, through whom he directed the Boston Blades sled hockey program for several seasons and led pool programs for swimmers with disabilities. A custodian at Burlington High School, Welsch continues to speak to anyone who will listen about his story and the lessons he’s learned.
He’s been sober for 23 years.
“I try to tell the younger generation that if you have a problem with alcohol, it’s OK to get help,” he said. “My problem cost me my leg, but it doesn’t have to come to that.”
As for future athletic pursuits, Welsch is on quite a kick with swimming. He wants to swim from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket next summer, which is about the same distance as Sunapee, he estimated. “But it’s open ocean and a lot colder,” he said.
Welsch also hasn’t forgotten about his mission to complete the major New Hampshire lakes. “I’m thinking maybe Ossipee next,” he said.
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.