Amputee ready to swim Lake Winnisquam

Union Leader Correspondent
August 16. 2017 12:28AM

Mike Welsch of Shirley, Mass., a marathon athlete despite having just one leg, is seen prior to swimming Newfound Lake in Bristol in 2016. John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent. 

SANBORNTON — An alcohol-fueled motorcycle crash in 1978, while a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, changed Mike Welsch’s life forever.

“I paid for it the rest of my life. Alcohol kills and maims. If I can get that word out I feel like I’ve done my job,” said Welsch, 57, who lives in Shirley, Mass.

His left leg was amputated below the knee and a second surgery was needed as a result of infection.

“They had to cut it again and I was really scared I was going to lose my knee,” Welsch recounted. His right leg remained in a cast for six years.

Over 10 years, Welsch underwent 25 surgeries that included re-breaking his right leg and putting in a metal rod to stabilize it. He credits Dr. John Harris III, an orthopedic surgeon at the Veterans Administration Medical Center Jamaica Plain, in Boston, with saving his life.

In the nearly four decades since the crash, Welsch has used participation in marathon sports to prove his warrior spirit remains unscathed and he was a pioneer in amputee running.

On Thursday, he is scheduled to hop into Lake Winnisquam near the loon sanctuary and swim 7.5 miles to Mosquito Bridge.

Cliff King of Sanbornton, a member of the newly formed Winnisquam Watershed Network, who is heading up the all-volunteer support team for the event, said Welsch will most likely swim beneath the bridge and then loop back for a total distance of 9.5 miles.

When he ran his first Boston Marathon, Welsch used a World War II-era designed prosthesis. The hollow leg with steel hinges on both sides was attached with a leather corset. The resulting friction abraded his stump raw. After transitioning to a lighter foot, he went on to run seven more Boston marathons.

He is amazed at the technological advances in prosthesis design noting that when he was invited to run at the Wounded Warrior Games in California, fellow competitors each had backpacks with specialty legs designed for a specific sport.

“They really appreciated my journey and wanted me there. It was such an honor. The Marines never forgot me,” Welsch said of being invited to participate in the annual games.

Despite his accomplishments in running, Welsch said, his true love is the water. He frequently swims at Mirror Lake at Fort Devens and at Walden Pond, but leaves his prosthesis on shore.

He completed the Boston Light Swim, the oldest open water marathon swim in the country seven times, earning the needed credentials to enter the Swim Around Manhattan, a 28.5-mile odyssey.

“I came in last, but I completed it in under 10 hours, said Welsch, who works as a custodian at the Francis Wyman Elementary School in Burlington, Mass.

Boating beside Welsch during several practice swims on Winnisquam in preparation for Thursday’s event, King said, he was amazed to see Welsch maintain a straight course, with just one leg.

“He keeps the fingers on his right hand open, and cups his left hand and it keeps him swimming straight,” King said of the observations he made as Welsch kept up a steady free-style stroke.

“He’s absolutely amazing. He swam 4.5 miles in two hours,” King said.

The swim has been divided into legs and there will be four boats and at least as many kayaks that will accompany Welsch on various portions of the route. The swim will begin at 8:30 a.m. to allow Welsch to eat a hearty breakfast. It is estimated that he will finish between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. depending on wind conditions.

Welsch will get out of the water at the dock at Winnisquam Market. The store will donate food to all the volunteers, King said.

During his marathon swims, Welsch drinks Ensure to help fuel him and occasionally eats small squares of peanut butter, jelly and walnut sandwiches. To keep his mind off the fatigue and physical pain, Welsch said he focuses on home improvement projects he’s completed, thinks about how he could have made them better, and then moves on to pondering future projects.

He attributes his never quit philosophy to his training as a Marine and growing up in Dorchester.

“The Marines instill that never quit into you and I use it when I can.”

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