He’s up before the sun even thinks about it.
At 47, Phil Colclough is in the best shape of his life, thanks to his two outdoor passions — whitewater kayaking and swimming. Mountain biking used to be a third, but the constant jarring was punishment on his back.
His love of swimming goes back decades, to elementary and high school, but then he moved on. Five back surgeries later, the husband and father of two chose to get reacquainted with an old friend, the pool.
“That was four years ago,” he said. “I just started swimming and increasing my mileage. I started making some goals.”
Next thing he knew, Colclough had swum 400,000 yards. Then it was 500,000, and then 600,000. “Then six turned into eight,” Colclough said. “At eight, I began to wonder if I could get 1 million. That became this arbitrary mark.”
On March 1, 2017, the challenge began. Colclough calculated if he could swim 20,000 yards each week, he could reach 1 million yards, or a whopping 568.18 miles.
A lot of laps
Putting it another way, 1 million yards is equal to 20,000 laps in the pool. Those 20,000 yards Colclough swims every week add up to 400 laps.
Swimming five days a week was the plan.
His preferred locale was the Blount Memorial Wellness Center in Alcoa. Colclough, who is the director of animal care, conservation and education at Zoo Knoxville, was up at 4:45 a.m. and in the pool at 5:30 a.m. for 90 minutes of exercise and clear thinking. Day, after day, after day.
“There is this whole element of counting the laps that I really enjoy,” he said. “There is something cathartic about counting the laps and meeting the schedule and having control over what I’m doing.”
The self-professed obsessive-compulsive athlete began to meet other people with like-minded goals. Lynn Carmichael swam at the Wellness Center, too, and they became friends and encouragers. Scott Hussey also was part of the early morning ritual, putting in laps. He competed in his first Iron Man competition this year.
A busy work and home life can take a bite out of the lofty goal of five days a week in the pool, but not to worry. Colclough said he would do a workout and a half on two days if he needed time off.
Or what about traveling? Colclough had a plan for this as well.
“I know every YMCA pool in every town I’ve been to,” he said. “I have to hit those when I’m out of town. It’s not an option not to. I just don’t let that happen.”
In pools and open water
Colclough swims in a pool on weekdays, but open water swimming is his preference. He swims with a group called the Knoxville Open Water Swimmers, or KOWS. They meet once per week and swim the Tennessee River, starting in May.
He’s excelled in that environment, winning the Tennessee Open Water Series Race last year. Colclough also has swum in the Bridges to Bluffs, a KOWS event.
All while Colclough was counting laps, he thought of another family member who showed great talent in the sport. His father, Bucky, swam for Union College in Kentucky and came close to qualifying for the Olympics.
As he came closer to his millionth yard, Colclough decided he would honor his father by swimming his last laps at Union College, where his parents met as students. His dad was there to see him meet his goal.
The feat is accomplished. The challenge has been met. Colclough can take a deep breath and feel good about it.
No stopping now
But there’s no stopping for Colclough. He just recently started on his next million yards. Carmichael is, too, and Colclough said she is on track to make it.
It’s swim over sleep for Colclough and the others who gather at the Wellness Center and places like it to train, strive and stretch their way to a goal. Swimming, he said, maybe isn’t the best sport to meet people and socialize, but it’s worked for him.
“I am an incredibly social person and swimming is not a real social activity,” he said. “Your face is in the water. We all say, ‘hello’ and ‘I’ll see you in an hour and a half.’”
Colclough’s wife, Alyson, is a teacher at John Sevier Elementary. She is a good swimmer, too, he said, and the reason he has time to spend in the pool each day. “It it weren’t for her doing the ‘kid chores’ by herself in the morning, I couldn’t have done any of this,” Colclough said.
It’s not his intention to go faster or develop better form. For Colclough, it’s all about the yards and reaching that goal. The meditative benefit is an added bonus.
Colclough reluctantly agreed to share his story. He didn’t want to be seen as a braggart, and it was a friend who contacted The Daily Times about his remarkable achievement. Colclough is content to keep on with those rhythmic strokes and count the yards.
He said the time in the pool is energizing, making him ready for whatever comes his way.
“You feel like you have a leg up on everybody else,” he said.