Joe Griffith thought he could get the better of Lake Michigan. In the late 1950s, the lifeguard tried four times to swim the 38 miles from Chicago to Michigan City, Ind. Through the years, he faced stomach cramps, indigestion, 15-foot waves, navigation errors, heavy fog, a seiche, multiple rainstorms and relentless currents before the lake spit him out for good. From his hospital bed after that fourth attempt, he said, "I'll never talk about crossing the lake again."
Diana Nyad's failed attempt last week to swim from Cuba to Florida recalls an era when long-distance swimming in Lake Michigan drew thousands of spectators to the lakefront. It was the fourth attempt by Nyad, a Lake Forest College graduate, to make the 103-mile swim through jellyfish- and shark-infested waters.
What Lake Michigan lacks in deadly critters, it more than makes up for with shifting currents, cold water and choppy waves. More than one experienced marathon swimmer has emerged from the lake to declare it an ordeal like none other.
- Photo gallery: Marathon swimming
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In August 1960, after an Alaskan teacher named Harry Briggs gave up on his third attempt to swim the same route as Griffith, a Tribune editorial wrote about "our invincible lake" and pointed out swimmers made the more famous 21-mile English Channel swim nearly once a week while the lake was unconquered. If anyone did manage to cross, the editorial concluded, it would require "a rare degree of cooperation from nature."
The idea of swimming across the lake is a relatively new one. When the long-distance swim craze seems to have started at the turn of the last century, athletes rarely attempted anything over five miles. In August 1906, a five-mile race from the Lakeview water intake crib to shore was won by H.J. Handy, who finished in just over an hour. Many of the other participants didn't fare so well. The "roughest seas of the year, white caps, large waves and heavy swells" left even those who finished with bloodshot eyes, lips and noses black from congealed blood and mumbling unintelligibly. Handy emerged from the water appearing "fresh almost as a sea nymph," the Tribune reported.
A year later, not one of 18 swimmers finished a 10-mile swim in calm water. "Three of the men who went the farthest were delirious when they were taken from the water," the Trib said after the Chicago Athletic Association event. One was "entirely out of his mind ... and attempting to swim under water" when reached by rescue swimmers.
It wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the idea of swimming across the lake really captured the public's imagination, and much of the credit for that can be laid at the feet of a car salesman. Jim "The Courtesy Man" Moran was a household name at the time because of his numerous TV ads. A natural showman, he sponsored Griffith's attempts and in 1960 offered a cash prize of $3,675 to the first person to swim from Chicago to Michigan City.
One man who took up that challenge would become arguably the city's most successful marathon swimmer. Ted Erikson, a 33-year-old research chemist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, set a world open water distance record in August 1961 when he swam 43 miles — the actual distance was longer because he was pushed off course by wind and currents — from Chicago to Michigan City in 36.5 hours. More than 10,000 people greeted him in a heavy rain when he emerged from the lake.
He didn't get the lake's cooperation, as the Tribune suggested was necessary. He battled waves as high as 16 feet. It was so bad his support team lost him for about 15 minutes in the middle of the night.
Two years later, Moran posted a new challenge: Swim 60 miles from Chicago's Burnham Park Harbor to Silver Beach in St. Joseph, Mich., for $15,000. Most believed it couldn't be done. Erikson and 16 other swimmers disagreed, making the attempt in August 1963. Only two finished. The winner, finishing in a speedy 35 hours, was a 34-year-old Egyptian army officer named Abdel-Latif Abou-Heif. Coming in second, three hours later, was Erikson. He received $1,000.
In trying to understand the drive that pushes a person to swim that long, consider Erikson's reaction after completing that amazing feat — but finishing second. So upset about losing, he turned right around and tried to swim back to Chicago. "He swam a mile back into the lake before friends convinced him to halt," the Tribune reported.
Erikson went on to cross the English Channel multiple times, including a successful round-tripper, and swam a number of other high-profile routes. The only Chicagoan who could make a claim on Erikson's title of being Chicago's best would be his son, Jon, who beat his father's times crossing the English Channel. In 1981, he became the first person to swim the channel three times nonstop.
Despite the Eriksons' amazing accomplishments, interest in long-distance swimming in Chicago didn't last long. By 1971, the father-son duo were bemoaning the lack of sponsorships and public interest. Moran had stopped funding his "Lake Michigan Challenges," saying the cost of running the events was too high.
More recently, two women have crossed the lake successfully. Vicki Keith, a Canadian, swam from Union Pier, Mich., to Chicago's Oak Street Beach in 1988, a year when she traversed all five Great Lakes. In 2009, Paula Stephanson, another Canadian, made the 32-mile swim from Rainbow Beach on the South Side to Michigan City in just 25.5 hours.
Years later, Erikson tried to explain to the Tribune how he managed the mental ordeal. He said the depression usually hit him in three waves. "That third one seems to have no limit," he said. "I mean, death is the limit, as near as I can tell. I've been close to that a couple of times."
Editor's note: Thanks to Tom McCormick, of Burr Ridge, for suggesting this Flashback.