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Nick Irons cringes at the term “motivational speaker.” But he earned his right to motivate in 1997 by swimming the length of the Mississippi River—1,500 muddy, dam- and lock-clogged miles of it.

Even in the middle of a river, of course, no man is an island. Nick, now 31, accomplished his feat with help from his close-knit Bethesda family. His younger brother, Andy, accompanied him on the four-month trip, running interference in an 11-foot dinghy. At one point, they switched roles just for the experience of it: Andy swam the width of the river while Nick followed in the boat. “I realized how ridiculously slow that was,” Nick laughs.

Nick’s older brother, John, created a Web site that let supporters track the trip, and his mother, Connie Irons, became his public-relations guru. And for scheduling and travel arrangements? Nick smiles and points to his father: “Luckily, we had a very anal, detail-oriented person.”

The elder John Irons wasn’t simply the trip’s logistician, though; he was also its inspiration. Nick’s feat raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Nancy Davis Foundation, which funds multiple-sclerosis research, not least because his father has lived with the illness for over 20 years. Amid the publicity surrounding the swim, John, an allergist with a thriving Bethesda practice, “went from what I considered to be tightly in the closet to out of the closet” about his MS, he says. Any hesitation about going public was momentary, he says. John knows his son’s determination: “Nick was going to do the swim, and I wasn’t going to be in the way.”

Six years later, after much thought about what his accomplishment means—and after a 10,000-mile bike ride around the perimeter of the continental United States in 2000, but that’s another story—Nick wrote Swim Lessons. Part self-help book, part travel memoir, it looks to his experience to teach others how to achieve their goals. Although the book provides lessons—including “Find a motivation” and “Make a plan”— and exercises to reinforce them, they’re lessons he learned only by attempting the near-impossible; years later, he says, “I looked at a map and saw the Mississippi and thought: Wow, how did I do that? That is a long way!”

In true Irons-family style, Swim Lessons was written with help from Connie, who “played with the words” of her son’s narrative: “I just took out some of the ‘great’s,” she says. The result is now available at Amazon.com or the Clydesdale Press Web site and will hit bookstores in October.

The book, proceeds from which will go to Nick’s nonprofit, Going the Distance for MS Research, was only a small step in the Irons family odyssey. “The logistics [¼of publishing it] were a nightmare,” recalls Connie. “We just kind of flew by the seat of our pants and just figured it out along the way.”

Nick recalls spending hours around the kitchen table trying to pick out a toll-free number to help promote the book. “It’s 1-877-LONGSWIM,” Connie announces proudly.

Says John, dryly: “We couldn’t get 1-877-GREATSWIM.”

Nick, who describes his “plan-o-phobia” in the book, says now: “It was so much work that when I jumped into the Mississippi River for the first time, I thought: Finally! The easy part! All I have to do is swim!” —Pamela Murray Winters