TWO CHRISTMASES AGO, NICK Irons, high above the Mississippi River on a flight to see his parents in Bethesda, Md., wondered what it would be like to swim down it. A few days later, a motivation to find out hit him. His father, John, 53, a physician, stricken with multiple sclerosis since 1982, had developed a limp. “That’s when I put the two together,” says Irons, 25, who competed in the butterfly and the breaststroke at Boston College. “Helping my dad and swimming—doing something I love for someone I love.”
On June 1, after having given up a job as a TV production assistant, Irons donned a wet suit, jumped into the 56-degree waters of the river just outside Minneapolis and was carried along by the currents. “When I was able to do the first mile in 15 or 20 minutes,” he says, “I was like, ‘This’ll work.’ ” On Sept. 26, in Baton Rouge, 1,550 miles later, Irons pulled himself from the mighty Mississippi and gave his father a big wet hug. Irons doesn’t claim the longest distance on the river (that honor goes to an Oklahoma man who swam 1,826 miles in 1930), but he says he raised $125,000 for MS research from sponsors and well-wishers along his route.
“We heard about man-eating catfish, snapping turtles with heads the size of basketballs,” says Irons with a laugh. But the muscular swimmer hadn’t been told about the hospitality of people who lived near the river. Each night, Nick and his brother Andy, 22, who accompanied him in a motorized raft, would walk into town, where they would be offered meals or transportation. “People would say, ‘Here, take my truck,’ ” says Nick. There were poignant moments too. In Guttenberg, Iowa, a bed-and-breakfast owner asked Nick and Andy in to meet his wife, who had MS. “She stood up,” says Nick, “and there was a tear in her eye, and she just said, ‘Thank you.’ ”