Sunrise swimmers brave choppy, chilly waters
by Ashley Bates
It’s 7 a.m. on November 2. The sun rises over Lake Michigan. The water temperature is in the high 40s, as is the air. Ten foot waves pound against the sides of Chicago’s North Avenue pier.
And a group of thrill-seekers leap confidently into the water—just as they do every Sunday morning.
They call themselves the Lake Monsters. Some jump in and out, some float in inner tubes and others swim one mile from the North Avenue pier to the Oak Street Beach and back.
“I do it for the health reasons and the mental reasons,” says Christopher Schroeder, 52, who is covered head to toe in neoprene booties, gloves, cap and wetsuit. “You work every muscle in the body. It’s also a place to meditate. I go into a different zone when I swim.”
Lorenzo Ochoa, 27, who wears only swim trunks, does it to enjoy nature.
“It’s so beautiful here,” he says. “We’ve got to keep doing this as far as the weather permits….When we start breaking the ice, probably we’ll stop.”
This Sunday’s all-male group comprises three distance swimmers and five recreational swimmers. In the summertime, as many as 50 people, including children, join in.
“It’s like a big pool party,” says Steve Hernan, 41, who founded the group in the summer of 2007 and organizes meet-ups through his blog.
The Lake Monsters often attracts spectators and today is no different. Some inquire about the danger. Is this safe, they ask? Is this legal?
On one occasion last year, police approached the Lake Monsters, emphasizing that they swim at their own peril. On another occasion, a woman in a high-rise apartment mistakenly thought one of the Lake Monsters was drowning. She called 911.
In fact, the Lake Monsters have rescued struggling swimmers.
“I end up saving a few people a year down here,” says Dave Oliva, a construction worker from Villa Park who once swam in Antarctica. “I saved two lifeguards last year who flipped out of their kayaks.”
The Lake Monsters insist that the risk is part of the appeal.
“This tests everything about you,” Hernan says. “[It tests] your physical endurance, your mental endurance, your ability not to panic, your ability to make judgments in extreme situations…You try to control to the extent you can every possible variable.”
To minimize the danger, the swimmers use short, angular strokes in choppy water, wear thick wetsuits for longer swims and stay close to the pier, where they can climb out using emergency ladders. Hernan also checks the water conditions and weather forecast and takes cold showers to “prime” his body.
Chicagoans who wish to participate can visit the group’s Web site at www.openwaterchicago.com. They can also come to the annual “polar bear plunge” at the North Avenue Beach, which takes place every January 1st.
“We bring a shovel to break the ice because we cannot get access to the water,” Ezequiel Ochoa, 42, says with a smile. “We are crazies.”