There’s something about being in the water that frees the mind, makes you forget about whatever it is on land you’re trying to leave behind — loss, grief, pain, disappointment. Somehow being in the water seems to, at least temporarily, wash all of those things away. But for one group of swimmers in North Carolina, it isn’t so much about escaping, but about dealing directly with a huge loss in their lives — the loss of two of their fellow officers.
Five members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Dept. (CMPD) will be taking part in an honor swim to benefit the children of two fallen officers. The honor swim — which will take place next May — will raise money to send three of the officers’ children to college.
Those fallen officers, Fred Thornton and Sean Clark, were both killed in the line of duty. CMPD Officer Olin Lester says, “Both deaths had a dramatic impact on me as an officer, a man, and as a father.”
Clark, a member of the SWAT team, died in April of 2007. He was shot and killed while responding to a call about a suspect who was barricaded inside an apartment. Thornton was killed accidentally in February of 2011 during a narcotics-related search warrant.
Lester says he was working with Thornton that day, assisting him with securing the back of the residence. Once back inside the van, he smiled at Fred and asked how many days he had left until retirement. “Fred responded with a big smile, 101 days,” he said. Fred would die a few hours later, after his FSDD (flash sound distraction device) detonated while against his abdomen.
Lester says one day he was at home thinking about retiring (years from now), and how he would pay for his two year old daughter’s college education. That’s when he says he thought about Fred and how he left behind four children — the youngest still in high school at the time of his death.
It was at that moment Lester says “It hit me, we are going to swim the length of Lake Norman to put his youngest kid through college.”
“The crazy irony of it all is that Fred couldn’t swim for anything,” Lester said.
Lester says swimming always came very easily to him, and as a child it was one of the ways he bonded with his father. He’d been tracking world record holder and legendary swimmer, Diana Nyad, and her courageous attempts to swim the 103 miles from Cuba to Florida.
He started researching Lake Norman, the largest manmade body of fresh water in North Carolina.
“I started to study the lake and learned that no one had ever attempted to swim the entire length, which is 34 miles,” he said.
As soon as the seed was planted, and he was ready to run with the idea, Lester says the first person he thought of was his partner on the SWAT team since 2006 – Harlon McKinney. Lester says he knew if McKinney learned about his idea, he wouldn’t let him give up on it, until he saw it through.
So, the two of them started planning together. They needed three more swimmers to complete their honor swim team. Sgt. Mike Graue and Officer Derek Rud, both former Marines and members of the SWAT team, jumped at the chance. The fifth swimmer, Officer Seth Greene was in before he had a chance to be asked. Greene is on the department’s VCAT squad and also a good friend of Lester’s, who trains with him often for endurance races.
The swim route will start near the Lookout Shoals Dam, on the Catawba River. The officers will swim continuously, one swimmer at a time, until they reach Blythe Landing Park. Lester estimates it will take them around 24 hours to complete the route. They also plan to swim at night.
Their journey now begins, with intense physical training.
Lester says they will focus on strength and endurance training and get to a pool or open water whenever possible, to help them prepare.
Lester says a few months after Fred’s death, a local Charlotte company donated a mature Oak tree to the department as a living honor of Fred’s life. The beautiful tree was planted at the department’s range.
“As a sniper with the SWAT team, I train roughly one week per month. So every month, for an entire week, I would see this tree – this living memory of my friend,” Lester said. This would go on for a whole year. “At the end of the year, I decided that I wanted to build a memorial around the tree. I started pricing bricks, stones and monuments.”
But then, Lester says, he thought about Fred. “He was a very pragmatic man. Fred would not want money spent on a memorial.”
“I knew that despite all of my planning over that period of time, in the end I‘d have to honor Fred by supporting the one thing a father would do anything for – his children.”