On Sept. 11, a small crowd of local beachgoers gathered at Avery-Crouse Beach to congratulate former U.S. Marine Mike Welsch when he completed his swim from Wellington State Beach to the foot of Newfound Lake as a tribute to the First Responders who lost their lives that day 20 years ago. Welsch did the long distance swim, along with dozens of others in the past, having lost his left leg in an accident in the late 1970s. (Photo by Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
September 16, 2021BRISTOL ¬– As people all across the United States paid tribute to the thousands who lost their lives on 9/11, one Massachusetts man decided to travel back to Newfound Lake, where he had participated in Swim With a Mission a couple of years ago, and swim from Wellington State Beach to Avery-Crouse Beach in honor of all who died in the terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
What made the swim extra meaningful is that 62-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Michael Welsch of Shirley, Mass. has only one leg.
As a "grunt gunner" at Camp Lejeune in 1979, Welsch had time off one night and decided to have some fun on his motorcycle. He had been drinking at the time and his day off ended with an accident from which he ultimately lost his left leg a few months later. It's been 33 years since he has had another drink.
"It's something I'll pay for the rest of my life," he told a Salmon Press reporter in August of 2016 after swimming the length of Newfound Lake.
When he recovered and received his new prosthetic leg, Welsch set out on a personal challenge to swim as much and as far as possible to show others that, even when faced with adversity, anything is possible if you put your heart into it.
Over the years, Welsch has swum all of New Hampshire's big lakes, including the length of Lake Winnipesaukee, and even a few smaller lakes in between. Being the cleanest lake in New Hampshire though, he has especially enjoyed distance swimming in Newfound Lake whenever the opportunity has arisen.
"I wanted to swim this lake again before the temperatures got too cold, and I especially wanted to do it on 9/11 for all the brave firefighters who ran into those towers to save lives then lost their own, too," he said last weekend.
On Friday evening, Welsch and his friend, Ken Hughes of Windsor, Vt., drove to Wellington Beach to determine where he would start this memorial swim. While there they met N.H. State Police Marine Patrol Officer John Johnson. Hearing about the proposed swim, Johnson gave Welsch a few tips then said he would try to be in the area while they were on the lake on Saturday.
At 12:30 p.m. the next day, Welsch waded into the lake with Hughes beside him in a kayak to provide him with any aide he might need along their trip. Leaving from the beach meant they had to first head out of that bay area then wind between islands while Hughes kept an eye out for boaters travelling in the vicinity. True to his word Johnson kept checking on the pair though, providing them with a safety barrier for any boats that came too close.
Three-and-a-half hours later, Welsch and Hughes arrived at Avery-Crouse Beach to find a small crowd of beachgoers who learned of his mission that day. With an "Alexa" coincidentally on hand, one beachgoer was even able to broadcast the Marine Hymn ("Halls of Montezuma") when Welsch finally grabbed onto a boat dock along the shore.
Surprised by the gathering, he said with a grin, "If I'd known people would be waiting here for me like this I would have picked up my speed!"
While the sun was shining and the sky was once again a brilliant blue on Sept. 11, Welsch said the lake conditions were not what he had hoped for as he set out on his swim. The air was pleasant but water temperatures were cold, warming up a bit only as he made his way past the islands.
"I wanted to quit many times on this swim, but I just kept going," he said later.
Much of what spurred him on were his thoughts of those who selflessly ran into the towers with no concern for themselves. Welsch said that when he took breaks along his swim, he and his friend Ken talked about that and it gave him the determination to swim on despite his own discomfort.
"They were wearing heavy gear marching all the way up into those two buildings and just kept going without thinking about what they were personally going through. I had to keep going, too," he said.
The impromptu welcoming crowd was excited to watch Hughes paddling the kayak as the duo grew closer to the beach and they could finally see Welsch's white swimming cap bob up and down in the water. Over the sounds of the Marine Hymn cheers and applause rand out as they all waited to greet him once he caught his breath on the dock, strapped his prosthetic leg back on and walked ashore. Officer Johnson pulled up and docked his boat for a moment to congratulate Welsch, too.
None of the three were certain exactly how far the swim had been, but Johnson said, considering how they had to weave between the islands, it was most likely four to perhaps even five miles. Welsch joked that it seemed more like 10 miles with the temperatures. In either case, it was Mission Accomplished.
For now, he is putting aside any plans for future swims and will go back to bicycling around Quabbin Reserve back home in Massachusetts. Throughout the winter and spring however, his sights will still be set on other New England lakes he has yet to conquer.