Mike Solberg was about to do something crazy. Standing on shore, the minister from Rockford, Ill., faced a goal he first set at 15, a goal whose achievement lay somewhere beyond the wide, watery horizon and a place deep within himself. He would swim the English Channel.
Barely a thousand people have succeeded since Englishman Matthew Webb first did in 1875. Twice as many people have climbed Mt. Everest.
After months of preparation, Solberg, D’89, had arrived in Dover, England, Sept. 8 with his son, Henry. They waited days for their boat pilot to tell them the tides and weather conditions were favorable. Finally, on the morning of Sept. 19, it was time to go.
Solberg was 45, no longer a young man, nor at 6-feet, 230-pounds, likely to be mistaken for a competitive swimmer. Though he had been training for a year, he lacked experience in open water, and he was queasy about swimming through the night, when it would be impossible to see the stinging jelly fish that frequent channel waters. The currents coursing through the channel’s narrowest point, the route he hoped to follow, were new to him.
Against these long odds, Solberg had raised the stakes beyond his own possible failure. He had committed to raising $50,000 to build a school for children in the West African nation of Angola, and shared that goal with the entire world through his website, swimmikeswim.com. His family and congregation back in Illinois would be tracking his progress. His teenage son was in the escort boat, part of the crew that would periodically lower a tethered bottle of energy drink.
He remembers feeling as if the months of preparation were coiled tightly inside him. All he had to do was let it slowly unwind over the next 13 hours.
Just before noon, Greenwich Mean Time, he plunged into the chilly waters and started swimming toward France. Landfall was at least 21 miles away. If the winds and tides pushed him off course, the distance might morph into 30 miles, or more.
Their pastor’s big plans had caught some of his congregation by surprise.
“When Mike initially shared the idea of swimming the English Channel, I thought he was nuts,” says Kathi Ferrero. “But as he paired the swim with his dream of a school in Waku Kungo, I knew he could be successful.”
Dick Nielsen, the moderator of the church’s governing council, says Solberg’s proposal left the congregation “a little bit in awe and surprised.” But their surprise didn’t last very long.
Swimming the channel was a goal Solberg had first set for himself at age 15. Over the next three decades, he had neither the time nor the resources to pursue it. But after seven years as senior pastor at Second Congregational, Solberg had the opportunity for a three-month sabbatical. Suddenly, all the pieces seemed to come together.
He approached his congregation with a plan to connect his time away, his swimming goal, and the church’s ongoing commitment to the West African country of Angola, a nation torn by a long civil war that ended in 2002.
He would use the channel swim to raise $50,000 to help the city of Waku Kungu. The money would be donated to the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola for a school that will serve children during the day and adult vocational students at night.
In his doctoral thesis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Solberg argued that observation of the sabbath should be about more than worship and rest: it should also be about play and service. As an extension of the sabbath, he believed, a sabbatical should include physical activity and service to others.
The connection impressed Sally Hoff, a longtime member of Second Congregational. “Everybody is so proud that this endeavor was not just to fulfill a lifetime goal of his own,” she says, “but to make it count for so many other people.”
In the fall of 2008, Solberg and an enthusiastic church committee learned that Lilly Endowment had approved their application for a $44,760 National Clergy Renewal grant.
In addition to supporting a three-month leave and expenses associated with his English Channel attempt, the grant would allow Solberg to travel to Angola to present a check for the school.
On the Saturday of his swim, many of Solberg’s parishioners from Second Congregational United Church of Christ were at the church’s annual golf tournament. Someone had brought a laptop computer so they could track Solberg’s progress through a navigational device attached to his escort boat. Family and friends across the United States, in Angola, and around the globe followed, too.
What they couldn’t see in the dot on the computer screen was that Solberg was losing to the elements. Back home, he had completed eight marathons, two Ironman Triathlons and a 50-mile run. But swimming from England to France felt like a goal too far.
Six hours in, the sun had faded. The sea grew black but for the few yards ahead illuminated by a spotlight held on the boat by his son Henry, 18. The chill of the 63-degree water began to seep deeper inside him. His body ached. He was only half way.
At one point, Solberg caught a view of the back of the boat, where the ladder was stowed. That ladder, he knew, was the first step toward a hot shower and sleep. He felt sick of swimming. It was no longer fun.
But fatigue seemed a lame reason to quit. Of course he was tiring! “You’re swimming the English Channel, mate!” he told himself.
There was also what he later described in his blog as “a bit of good old fear of shame. I didn’t want to have raised all that money for the school in Angola, and then not make it. I didn’t want to appear (to be) someone who would set off on a cool sounding challenge, but then not accomplish it for no good reason.”
He remembered a line from long distance runner Dean Karnazes’s book Ultramarathon Man, something like, “There are good times and there are bad times …. This is not one of the good times.”
“I just kept telling myself that this was not one of the good times,” Solberg says, “but that it would pass.”
It did, in great part thanks to reports from Henry that e-mails offering support were coming in from thousands of miles away.
“It was a nice bright spot in that tough time,” Solberg recalls.
He stopped thinking of the miles of black water ahead. He concentrated on the “feedings,” when the boat would extend a bottle full of energy drink every 20 minutes or so.
“You learn, don’t look up. Swim feed to feed,” he says. “Go 400 to 500 strokes and stop. When you break it down into small parts like that, it makes it a lot easier.”
Solberg had estimated the timing right. It took him 13 hours and 31 minutes to “slog” to France. He landed in the town of Wissant just after midnight. He climbed over shore boulders and searched for a souvenir stone, a piece of France, something solid and the opposite of water. He found one, made his way to the escort boat, and took a far more pleasant trip back to England.
A celebrated return
On Sunday morning in Rockford, just hours after Solberg reached the shore of France, the church was abuzz.
“You could just feel the excitement when everybody walked into church the next morning,” says Sally Hoff. “The tension had mounted. Those last hours were hard on all of us watching, but he made it.”
On Solberg’s return home in early November, he was honored by the Rockford city council, which declared Nov. 9 officially “J. Michael Solberg Day.” There were also television interviews and many well wishers.
Solberg, who had to postpone his trip to Angola due to logistical problems there, has committed to adding $20,000 to his original goal. The $70,000 will provide a larger school than initially planned, and he hopes to visit the school site in early 2010. Meanwhile, he finds himself returned triumphant, but somewhat off balance.
Two weeks after he returned to his office, he reported “I still feel like I have two left feet.”
He has given sermons, but hasn’t yet spoken of his epic swim.
“I’m still debating a sermon on the channel,” he says. “I kind of just don’t have enough clarity in my mind yet about how to summarize it. I need to let it percolate a little longer.”
But to many in his church, Solberg has already preached in the sense of the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.”
“The thing about Mike is he really does strive in everything he does to be a true disciple of Christ,” says Hoff. “I’m sure there are times for Mike when it is very hard in this very secular world to do that, but it’s like swimming the channel, or running a marathon; he does it.”
Endurance of pastor and church
As the fundraising nears its goal, the needy in Angola are not the only beneficiaries. Solberg’s example of discipline taught his church. So did his absence. Dick Nielsen, who took over leadership of the governing council on the eve of the pastor’s departure last July, says he didn’t want the extra responsibility at first. “I asked, ‘Why am I the leader when Mike’s leaving for four months?,” Nielsen recalls. But the next months were a revelation for the 68-year-old retiree and others in the church. “The congregation and staff just pulled together. We got stronger and closer by realizing what we could do.”
Second Congregational Church is a symbol of perseverance in downtown Rockford, a city of 150,000 with one of Illinois’s highest poverty rates. Situated 90 miles west of Chicago on the Rock River, Rockford was hard hit by the Rust Belt’s industrial decline. Once the city’s largest church with 3, 000 members, today Second Congregational has 600. Many of Rockford’s poorest residents live nearby the downtown area where the church stands.
When a fire destroyed the sanctuary 30 years ago, the church members had to choose whether to move or stay. They chose to stay.
“They stayed even though Rockford was dying,” says Sally Hoff. “Those people who stayed are the ones who have that true commitment to downtown.” As part of that commitment, the church recently opened a new gym and community center used by local chapters of the national Boys and Girls Clubs.
“The young adult population in our church has really been thriving,” says Sally Hoff’s daughter, Maggie, now an engineering student at Duke. “I know that [Mike] had a lot to do with that. We all appreciate the way he walks the talk. He took on this lifetime goal and made it helpful to people in need.”
The pastor has accomplished his goal, but he says the willingness to risk failure is more important.
“Maybe the church doesn’t pay enough attention to risks that are worth taking,” Solberg says. “You have to be very careful, prepare, and plan. You just don’t launch out and swim the English Channel without proper preparation. But sometimes that risk can really be full of renewal.”
Ned Barnett is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. He is a former editor and writer at The (Raleigh) News & Observer.