Give Another Hoiah!

Janel Jorgensen & Coleen Lynch atop Mt. Kilimanjaro

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

It sounded like such an exciting vacation idea when her pal Janel Jorgensen, an Olympic swimming medalist, called last August.

Climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and then go on a four-day excursion through three Tanzanian national game parks. A perfect January escape from the high-pressure world of investment management, thought Coleen Lynch ’95, a Holy Cross Hall of Fame swimmer. What a nice idea. It should be relaxing, so much fun ...

While trudging up the rocky Machame Trail for seven hours in the dark, battling nausea and toting a backpack through wind-blown snow and bone-chilling cold, Lynch began reconsidering the wisdom of her getaway choice. “It was much more daunting than I had imagined,’’ she understates.

Ah, but the payoff: Standing near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro at Stella Point. Amid a band of 15 climbers, Lynch gazed out above the clouds to witness a spectacular sunrise. It was a spiritual moment, she recalls, inspiring an awe that Jesuit theologian Jean Danielou might have offered as proof of the existence of God. “Tears of joy, tears of wonder, tears of accomplishment: a whole range of emotions whirled about,’’ Lynch says. That majesty, standing in the snow, looking down at the sunshine glistening upon ancient glaciers, made her forget her awful stomach upset and utter exhaustion intensified by altitude.

Having paused for a cup of Thermos tea, Lynch and her comrades trekked another hour to reach Uhuru Peak, at 19,344 feet the highest point in Africa. (Three volcanic cones form the cratered tops of Kilimanjaro: Kebo, Mawenzi and Shira. Uhuru Peak is part of Kebo.) “The guide told us Uhuru would be a ‘short stroll’ ... had I known how long and hard it would be, I might have turned back,’’ she explains.

After the obligatory picture taking for reasons of personal posterity, she would come down quickly from that high. The ascent had taken seven days, from the tropic climes of the rainforest and moors, through barren lunar-like landscapes, to an arctic-tundra mountaintop. The descent took only seven hours.

“I know many others, including Holy Cross students and alums, have made this climb. It is not a technical mountain-climbing feat requiring ropes, spikes and picks,” Lynch says. “Yet it is a meaningful challenge and very special individual accomplishment.”

Certainly this is not a vacation for the faint of heart. Each year, nearly 20 hikers, guides and porters die—from high altitude lung and cerebral complications and a variety of other causes—trying to reach one of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks along Machame, the steepest and most scenic of seven routes. Only 40 percent of those who try make it all the way to Uhuru Peak. “That last day was exhilarating, but rugged. We rested four hours (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.) at the high camp (Kosovo), but I couldn’t sleep. We left at midnight for the seven-hour summit hike, wearing headlamps to light the way. Our stay on top was brief before the descent,” Lynch recalls. “Fourteen straight hours of hiking on no sleep ... it was a real test.”

Lynch did not take Kilimanjaro lightly. As one would expect from a high-performance athlete, she prepared well. Lynch had some hiking experience: Two years before, she had ventured with Sarah Garrity, a 1982 classmate of her sister Mary’s, to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas 8,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of Peru.

Slowed by a thyroid problem last summer, Lynch knew she wasn’t in shape to climb even Mount St. James. In August, she plunged into training with Jorgensen, a 17-year-old butterfly sensation from Ridgefield, Conn., when she won a silver medal in the 400-meter relays at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Jorgensen, an All-American and Hall of Fame swimmer at Stanford University, is executive director of Swim Across America, a nonprofit that coordinates events throughout the country to raise money for cancer research. Lynch participates in the annual Boston Harbor swim to help the cause.

To build their stamina, Lynch and Jorgensen ran the steep steps of Harvard Stadium. They hit their local gym to work out. “I wore my hiking boots and packed on the equipment and got some very strange looks,’’ Lynch recalls. They hiked some nearby lumps such as Mount Wachusett, Mounts Monadnock and Lafayette in New Hampshire and the Blue Hills in the outskirts of Boston.

Lynch, inducted into the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 2001, is no stranger to arduous training. She had a remarkable career as a freestyle swimmer.

Her dad, Hugh Lynch ’60, served his country as a Navy pilot. In the early 1980s, Capt. Lynch and his wife, Madeline, relocated to Newport, R.I., where he would soon retire from active duty. He would continue to work there on the staff at the U.S. Naval War College. Two of their children, Mary ’82, who later married Bill Supple ’81, and Paul ’84, were already attending Holy Cross and competing for the Holy Cross swim team.

Eight years old at that time, Lynch began swimming competitively. Tutored by her longtime coach, Christine Hague, she swam for the Newport Navy Blues. Lynch later starred at Rogers High School where she performed in track and cross-country as well. Last year her exploits earned her election into the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame.

At Holy Cross, under coach Barry Parenteau, Lynch enjoyed immediate success, swimming with teammates such as Crusader Hall of Famer Jill Addesa ’92, Maura Walsh ’92, her roomie-to-be, Martina Moore ’95 and others. “Swimming didn’t define my whole college experience, but I had a wonderful time competing with so many people who remain my close friends today,” she says.

Lynch holds Holy Cross records in the 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 freestyle. As a senior she was named Co-Swimmer of the Meet, winning all three freestyle events at the Patriot League Championships. Winner of the 200 free style at the National Catholic Championships as a junior and senior, she won more than 100 events in her College career and set a school record in the 100 free-style on her final swim as a Crusader.

Lynch, named the 1995 Patriot League Scholar of the Year, was voted the winner of the Varsity Club’s Intercollegiate Athletic Achievement Award in her fourth year.

In brief, she made a huge splash as a student-athlete.

Lynch, an account manager for the Boston-based investment firm of Eaton Vance, remains a Crusader superstar. An ardent believer in giving back, she has served on the President’s Council for the past decade; her sister Mary and her husband, Bill Supple, are co-chairs of the Council. Since graduation, Lynch has been a dedicated director of the Holy Cross Varsity Club,  reigning as its president and serving as a member of its selection committee.

“Holy Cross has always been part of our extended family. Jesuits such as Father Joseph LaBran, S.J., ’38 were special friends before I came to Holy Cross. My family has always been active here. My nephew, Ned Supple ’13, is swimming for Barry (Parenteau). My family and so many close friends are loyal Crusaders, and Holy Cross will always be a huge part of my life,’’ says Lynch.

Ernest Hemingway writes of Harry, his tragic main character in The Snows of Kilimanjaro: “Africa was where he had been the happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come here to start again. They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought he could get back into training that way. That someday he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.”

Harry never does climb Kilimanjaro. Coleen Lynch now has. She says she has been given a jolt of inspiration. “Maybe I’ll run a Boston Marathon or enter some triathlete competition,” she adds with an impish smile.

Whatever this Crusader tries, she will likely make it to the top.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.