More Than 1,200 Consecutive Days and Counting: Meet The Great Lake Jumper

Man in bathing suit jumps into a lake at sunrise
Dan O'Conor '90 at dawn launching off the Lake Michigan shore.

Dan O'Conor '90 has jumped into Lake Michigan every day since June 13, 2020. Here's what he's learned.

I’ve always been drawn to the water, and living in Chicago, the vastness of Lake Michigan spoke to me. The sense of freedom and renewal that couldn’t be found elsewhere. On June 13, 2020, I took a leap into Lake Michigan for the first time in nine months. The day started with a pounding bourbon hangover, and my wife strongly suggested I get out of the house and ride a bike to the lake. I rode three miles to the lakefront and plunged into the lake. The shock of the water washed away the hangover like a magician’s trick.

It felt good to do something so simple that felt great and it began a journey that continues to the present day. It was a breath of fresh air, something positive to look forward to, somewhere to forget the pandemic, politics and protests. This became the ritual that I thirsted for to improve my mental health. I started shedding the weight of the world with a simple splash and emerging from the water reborn and revitalized.

Once the leaves fell and the Chicago winter arrived, friends and a local reporter cautioned me that I would not be able to safely continue jumping in the lake. I took on the “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude. I started to bring a shovel to the lakefront to hack a hole big enough to jump in the lake. I started to hear more about cold water immersion and loved the shock to my system and endorphin rush that became an amazing kickstart to my day. It became a battle of wills against nature itself and every day was a victory over the lake and the naysayers.

The act of jumping in Lake Michigan brought a positivity that had been lacking in my life. I was a fervent lover of live music and the pandemic had silenced the stages and closed the clubs. I was depressed without live entertainment, a reality that left a hole in my soul. I longed to hear live music and it inspired me to ask local musicians to serenade me as I jumped into the lake. What started as a lark turned into a real positive as I partnered with Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), an organization dedicated to supporting independent music venues that were struggling to survive.

My daily Great Lake Jumps turned into a joyous fundraiser and my growing social media presence amplified the CIVL mission. Each jump became a performance with the spectacular Chicago skyline as a backdrop. Donations poured in to support a cause close to my heart.

I wasn’t seeking fame. Rather, I was seeking a stronger connection to myself and the hope of healing.

The simple act of capturing the joy of my jump into our great lake was nearing a full year. And the story caught the attention of media outlets far and wide. The New York Times featured a full-page profile capturing the essence of the journey and “Inside Edition” marveled at my determination, while CBS Evening News showcased the transformative power of my daily ritual. The Associated Press wire carried the Day 365 Jump serenaded by Grammy winner Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and took it to the corners of the globe.

I wasn’t seeking fame. Rather, I was seeking a stronger connection to myself and the hope of healing. My leaps became a beacon for not just myself, but for many watching across the world. They were a reminder that even in the face of challenges one could find solace in the simplest of actions. Later, I finally was able to travel again and have jumped in many waterways, including all five Great Lakes, the three rivers in Pittsburgh, the Potomac in Maryland and the amazing Atlantic Ocean.

So now, three-plus years later, I continue the ritual. I once sought relief, but I found resilience. My journey has taught me many lessons, including that there is always light even in the darkest times. As the city’s seasons shifted around me, I was jumping into life, into hope, into a better tomorrow.

Dan O’Conor is a Chicago resident and an artist who creates wearable art.