Egan's watering feats include swimming to Alcatraz Island

TJ Egan has participated in numerous open water races including an annual 1.4-mile race in San Francisco that takes swimmers from Aquatic Park to the infamous Alcatraz Island.

Terry “TJ” Egan is an accomplished swimmer with several major achievements to his credit.

Now 51, the executive director for the Conway Medical Center Foundation won numerous championships as a youth and high school swimmer.

“My dad was a pro tennis player,” he said. “I have my mom’s genes.”

Egan learned to swim when he was 3-years-old, taking lessons from a local girl (Opal Wilhelm) who literally taught thousands of kids to swim in the small Illinois town where Egan and his family lived.

“That instilled a love of sports in me at a very young age,” he said. “My parents took us to meets all over the Midwest.”

Egan began competing when he was 9, and swam competitively all the way through high school where he won several conference and sectional championships and caught the eye of coaches at Northern Illinois University who offered him a scholarship to swim for the Huskies.

After graduating from NIU, Egan served as an assistant coach and recruiter for his alma mater before venturing out as a private coach.

“I’ve kept my toes in the water ever since,” he said. “I’ve officiated high school swimming. I coached an adult U.S. Masters team. For the past several years, I was involved in private coaching, mostly for triathletes who wanted to improve their swimming strokes. I’ve taught a lot of adults who had a tremendous fear of the water. Many had traumatic experiences by being thrown in the water. It’s the worst thing you can do.

“The adults who have come to me and learned to swim have dealt with the fear for decades and overcome it because they wanted to learn. For some people, it’s on their bucket list.”

In recent years, Egan has participated in a number of open water races all across the country including an annual 1.4-mile race in San Francisco that takes swimmers from Aquatic Park to the infamous Alcatraz Island. Egan finished 11th out of 350 swimmers, and was one of only 50 who didn’t use a wetsuit in the chilly September waters.

Another annual race that Egan and his wife Jennifer have participated in several times is a 5K or 3.1-mile race on Lake Michigan in Chicago.

He has also completed the Great Hudson River Swim, St. Pete’s Beach in Florida, and events in Madison, Wisc., and Greenwich, Conn., among other stops.

“My wife and I swim open water races around the country as a hobby,” he said. “Some people collect salt and pepper shakers and antiques. My wife and I collect swims. It’s become something we can do together.”

Upcoming plans include races in nearby Charleston and Wilmington, N.C.

“Those are ones I haven’t collected yet,” he said. “I have the English Channel on my bucket list. It would require a lot of time to train, which I don’t have now. A lot of people do it in retirement.”

Of all his accomplishments, Egan is most proud of his work with a handicapped Belvidere, Ill., youngster named Cameron Poole. When he began coaching the teen eight years ago, Poole was a little boy in a wheelchair without any use of his legs. He has since progressed to a rising star with the possible potential to represent the United States in the 2020 Paralympics in Japan.

“I taught him to swim when he was 7, and at 9 he won the nationals in six events,” Egan said. “For the last several years, he has traveled all over the country including the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.”

Egan is amazed how far Poole has come in such a relatively short period of time.

“It’s fun to see a boy like this go from not knowing how to swim to nine months later winning the nationals,” he said. “It was all him. I just showed him the way. I encourage parents of a kid with a disability to challenge them. It could be one of the best things for them physically.

“If a kid has disabilities, it doesn’t mean they can’t swim,” Egan said. “A lot of people doubted Cameron, but I didn’t think that way for a minute. I knew if he swam fast enough, his legs would plane out behind him.”

As a swim coach, Egan is a strong supporter of the Swim Strong Foundation, whose mission is to save and change lives through water safety education and teaching swimming skills. He said the Foundation offers assistance to parents who cannot afford to pay for the lessons. Visit www.swimstrongfoundation.org.

Egan encourages parents to offer their kids swimming lessons at an early age.

“Finding an appropriate venue that has organized swimming lessons is critical to every child as early as possible,” he said. “There’s groups for babies as young as 3-months-old. I see kids starting to swim competitively as early as 6-years-old.”

Egan said swimming is different than many sports in that teammates often become lifelong friends as a result of getting up at 5 a.m., and working out in a cold pool, and then spending time in the water together at various times throughout the day. He often attends reunions and regularly texts former teammates who have remained close through the years.

“It’s an even stronger bond than my graduating class,” he said. “I’m more likely to attend a reunion of my teammates because we spent so much time together. To this day, I wake up at 4 a.m. I’ve done it for so long it becomes a part of you.”

According to Egan, swimming is excellent exercise, especially in the morning because it gets the metabolism going. He lost 30 pounds recently by swimming, walking on a treadmill and watching his diet more carefully.

Egan, who moved to the area in May of 2016, enjoys his work with the Conway Medical Center Foundation. He prepped for his current job by raising funds for United Way and managing a charitable organization for John Ratzenberger, most notable for playing Cliff Clavin, the mailman on Cheers.

Also, Ratzenberger has performed the voice of at least one character in every feature-length Pixar film to date.

“I love it,” he said of his role with the CMC Foundation. It’s very satisfying. Part of my legacy is helping people learn to swim. Part of my legacy is here at the Conway Medical Center helping to promote the best care and the healthiest community we can have.

“Swimming is a lifelong thing. You don’t have to stop. You can find a local pool. You can love the water. There’s a certain freedom and weightlessness that comes with swimming. You feel good after a workout.”

When he’s not working or swimming, Egan enjoys following several professional and college teams.

“I love the Green Bay Packers,” he said. “I like the Chicago Cubs. I now follow Coastal Carolina football and baseball.”

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