Dad with motor neurone disease from village near Luton hopes to break world record swim for charity

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“I am going to try and turn a negative into a positive.”

A dad-of-three from a village near Luton is challenging himself to a 10.5km open-water swim in a Guinness world record attempt to be the first person with motor neurone disease to swim the distance unaided.

Mark O’Brien, 54, was given his devastating diagnosis last March after he began dropping his tennis racket during matches at his club in Rickmansworth. After tests and further investigation, doctors revealed that Mark had motor neurone disease – a rare degenerative condition that attacks the nervous system and weakens muscles.

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He said: “I was in the darkest place of my life between March and December of last year. To come out of that place means I will never go back because it couldn't have gotten darker.”

Mark after a training session. Picture: Mark O'BrienMark after a training session. Picture: Mark O'Brien
Mark after a training session. Picture: Mark O'Brien

While on holiday in December, Mark, who lives in Slip End, decided to set himself a challenge. He explained: “I contacted the Guinness Book of World Records and they were fantastic. They did a massive amount of research. They came back and put it in a disability category that gave me a distance, they said that if you beat it, you’ve got a world record.”

Training has been gruelling for Mark, who is still adjusting to the limitations that his condition has put him under. He said: “I was trying to train every day but my body just can't take it. It's a weird thing with MND – I might find it difficult to walk to the end of my drive, but if you put a person with MND in the water, they do feel relatively normal because their body weight is secured.”

Muscle cramping and breathing work are some of the obstacles Mark has endured while training for his upcoming swim at Denham Waterski Club in Uxbridge. He continued: “I had to understand how is my body going to react in the water with this kind of distance, and that I've never needed to worry about before. I did a kilometre just with my arms as in not moving my legs at all. Because I was cramping up in my calf.”

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Mark decided to tell his children and close family about his diagnosis in June and their support has been “unbelievable”. Lauren, 24, and 21-year-old twins, David and Georgia, have taken to social media to spread the word about their dad’s swim later this month.

Mark's family on holiday together - Georgia, left, Lauren, centre, and David, right. Picture: Mark O'BrienMark's family on holiday together - Georgia, left, Lauren, centre, and David, right. Picture: Mark O'Brien
Mark's family on holiday together - Georgia, left, Lauren, centre, and David, right. Picture: Mark O'Brien

The 10,500-metre swim on September 24 is expected to take Mark around four and a half hours to finish. He said: “The whole point of this swim is that it’s got to be unaided, and it's got to be nonstop. So I've had to work out a way to do that so that my body can take it.”

A fundraising page has been created to raise £25,000 for MND Association, a charity that supports those living with the disease which has supported Mark on his journey. He hopes that he can raise awareness for the disease and inspire others by doing this swim.

When asked how he would feel to complete the swim and hold a world record, he said: “I'll feel proud of myself. Very emotional. But knowing that I've done something that I didn't think was possible, and for my family, friends and strangers to witness that as well.”

People can donate to his page here and follow his swimming journey on Instagram and X.

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