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Dan Jacobson: Every stroke counts

Former North Dakota swimmer pushes limits to help feed Burmese refugees along the war-ridden Thai-Burma border


Dan Jacobson
University of North Dakota student pursuing a Master's in special education

Hometown:  Ramsey, Minnesota

Current City: Grand Forks, North Dakota

School: Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from University of North Dakota, 2014

Sport: Men’s swimming and diving

Fun fact:  Along with swimming, Dan played football and tennis in high school.

Dan Jacobson is not one to shy away from a challenge, nor is he one to shy away from helping others. So when he had the opportunity to do both, he took it: This past summer, the former University of North Dakota swimmer embarked on the longest open-water swim race in North America, a 36-mile slog through the Red River of the North in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to assist thousands across the world.

He never thought he would end up in the emergency room physically exhausted, dehydrated and suffering from hypothermic conditions after chasing a goal to provide meals for refugees he will likely never meet. However, he says the temporary pain was well worth the lasting impact.

Jacobson graduated from North Dakota in 2014, then immediately enrolled in the school’s special education master’s program. He competed for four years on the school’s swimming and diving team, and went on to become a team captain and team representative on the North Dakota Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. He also worked as an undergraduate volunteer for the Special Olympics and while interning for Athletes in Action, a sports ministry program. When his time in college was finished, his commitment to service endured.

“The principles we learn while being a student-athlete go far beyond the four or five years we are involved in college sports,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson’s journey to the Red River of the North started when he attended a college ministry conference in Rochester, Minnesota. His interest in mission trips and serving overseas had endured since childhood, but a presentation given by Venture Expeditions showed him a tangible way he could make an impact.

Venture Expeditions is an organization that provides relief in Southeast Asia by providing food to Burmese refugees. Individuals are challenged to raise funds for those in need by competing in extreme physical endurance tests. Knowing every dollar he raised would provide 10 meals, he was determined to swim as far as he could.

“I realized swimming can be my way to affect a part of the world I physically can’t touch,” Jacobson recalled.

Jacobson was familiar with the Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test – a 36-mile open-water swim race that is the longest in North America – but had never swum that far in open water. Venture Expeditions was accustomed to extreme runners and bicyclists, but had never worked with a swimmer. Within days of learning about the organization and its cause, Jacobson pitched his idea to them.

“We were honored that he wanted to partner with us,” said Candace Hurckman, a Venture local coordinator. “When he told us the race he wanted to compete in, endurance swimming, we were overwhelmed at the challenge he set forth for himself.”

Jacobson received the green light to swim the 36-mile race in June and had little time to train because of his responsibilities as a graduate student. Worse, he swam without a wet suit. Race day water temperatures were anticipated to be a comfortable 70-75 degrees, but temperatures dropped into the mid-60s – hypothermic conditions.

With support from friends and family acting as spotters in a boat by his side, Jacobson took off with one goal in mind: Finish and provide aid to refugees in need on the Burma-Thailand border.

The first 12 miles went smoothly, but the frigid waters caused his muscles to tighten up and he began to lose sensation in his legs. “Could I go another 24 miles?” he said. “I wasn’t sure.”

Two miles from the finish line, his spotters noticed Jacobson was slurring his words. He lost feeling in his extremities and from that point onward had little recognition of what transpired. He would end up in the emergency room, but not before finishing what he had set out to accomplish.

Jacobson placed among the top-10 finishers, swimming 36 miles in under 11 hours. More importantly, he raised $650, which provided for 6,500 meals for refugees.

“Dan has a good heart and loves people; he saw a huge need and acted,” Hurckman said. “One person can do incredible things. He followed through and now thousands are being fed.”

Completing the race and feeding refugees halfway around the globe is just one small step in Jacobson’s commitment to helping others. He is now pursuing a career as a special education teacher, but will never forget the power of sport.

“Athletes have a voice, even after our playing days, and sometimes we need a reminder just how far that voice can be heard,” he said.

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