Football Alumnus Gains New Perspective, Swims English Channel Relay

John Stephan (in red) with the other members of Over There! before they left Dover, England, to swim the English Channel Relay
John Stephan (in red) with the other members of Over There! before they left Dover, England, to swim the English Channel Relay

In honor of the 100th Anniversary of American soldiers landing at the port of Saint Nazaire in France to support the Allies during World War I, Carnegie Mellon University football alum John Stephan (GSIA'98) joined a group of Americans and Frenchmen on a swim across the English Channel. A late in life swimmer, Stephan grew interested in this popular endeavor amongst open water swimmers through the encouragement of a professional mentor.

Now an attorney covering government relations at CGI in Columbus, Ohio, Stephan started his professional career as an attorney at Keating, Muething & Klekamp in Cincinnati, Ohio, following his graduation from law school at the University of Cincinnati. While there, Stephan became close with Bill Keating, Jr. who was a hall of fame swimmer at the University of Cincinnati and once trained to swim across the English Channel.

"Bill always encouraged me to swim but I never took him up on it," said Stephan. "When I turned 40 and decided I wanted to do the Great Ohio River Swim he remained supportive and provided training plans and tips."

After Stephan's first experience in open water swimming he asked a friend, John Kulewicz, "What's next?"

Kulewicz, who had swum the English Channel once before as part of a relay, had just returned from another open water swim and replied with the thought of an English Channel Relay to commemorate the anniversary of the Americans landing in France.

Once a JAG officer for the Ohio Air National Guard, this appealed to Stephan but swimming the English Channel is a far cry from swimming in the Ohio River - from time, to water temperature, to weather patterns, to jelly fish stings, to meeting qualifications.

In order for the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation to give the green light, one must do a two-hour swim without a wetsuit in temperatures 60 degrees or less and get a physical.

Kulewicz was able to corral a group of six Americans and six Frenchmen to form two relay teams and the trip for Stephan was planned.

"John [Kulewicz] is a fantastic human being," said Stephan. "Through his swimming connections across the world, he was able to put all this together and for folks with otherwise busy lives, he was able to direct us."

Stephan began training for the relay swim, which would consist of six swimmers, swimming an hour at a time in only a swimsuit, cap and goggles, by going to a lake in Columbus, Ohio, in March when water temperatures were in the mid-40s.

Stephan's team of Kulewicz, an American female, a French female and two French males finished the Channel relay in 14 hours and 20 minutes on the morning of June 22.

"Although we would have wanted to complete the swim closer to June 26 to mark the 100th anniversary, we had to take the window of opportunity presented to us or not have the chance to swim at all," said Stephan. "Based on the upcoming weather, the crew said it was now or never and we left Dover, England, around 7:30 p.m."

In fact, later that morning on the return boat trip to England, the waters became so rough the crew had to turn around. The group waited and ended up taking a ferry out of the Port of Calais.

"It just shows the window of opportunity is slim and more often than not you'll run into rough water," said Stephan.

Stephan's first of two legs in the water came at 12:30 a.m. with a glow stick on his goggles so that he was visible to the guide boat. Because their swimming pattern (shown to the right) landed them along the beach, Stephan was able to swim the last 10 minutes with his teammates and finish in the water.

"To finish was something I wanted to do most," said Stephan. "The other team didn't get to do that because where they landed was rocky and their last swimmer had to climb the rocks to be fully out of the water."

With humor, Stephan credits his preseason days on the football field at Carnegie Mellon as an early prep for his later in life adventure.

"Coach Lackner had us in the pool during a few of our two-a-day workouts," Stephan recalls with a laugh. "Those kick-boarding workouts were tough, especially for those of us with little swimming experience."

"All this has shown me that you always have to be up for new experiences," said Stephan. "About 15 years ago, my mom went back to school at 54 years old to get her master's degree and that showed me that life doesn't stop and we shouldn't either."

Stephan now plans to focus on his children, Silas (3) and Sylvia (2), while supporting his wife, Janetta King, who has recently taken over as Chair of the Ohio University Board of Trustees.