AUTHOR’S NOTE: Ted Erikson died Wednesday morning at age 93. He was a swimmer, an educator, a trailblazer and an infectious spirit. I keep the letter he sent me on my fridge after I wrote about him in August. It was marked by his lively wit: “Thanks for making a short story looooong.” Ted’s longevity is a testament to his curiosity. And the world made the most sense on the water.
As Ted looked out on his beloved Lake Michigan this summer, 60 years after he swam across it, he seemed to be a man at peace with his journey.
Here’s my original story from Aug. 27.
63RD STREET BEACH — Ted Erikson’s cellphone goes straight to voicemail.
“Hey. I’m over 90 years old. I don’t need anything. Please don’t bother me. Unless you are a friend. If you are a friend, say so and your connection to me. Erikson. As a swimmer.”
The 93-year-old Hyde Park resident’s friends and fellow swimmers had no problem finding him last weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of his crowning achievement.
On Aug. 21, 1961, Erikson became the first known person to swim across Lake Michigan. He swam for more than 36 hours in stormy conditions, reaching Michigan City by way of McCormick Place.
On Sunday, Erikson — a former lab chemist at the Illinois Institute of Technology and high school science teacher — looked out at the water he had once conquered.
He had promised to take a dip in the lake once again. Someone gave him a cup of Lake Michigan water — and he poured it over his head.
“Sixty years ago today, I swam to Michigan City, which launched me on a career that I can hardly believe anymore,” Erikson said. “I’d like to think that if you swim, you can live an entirely different life.”
Supporters and members of Erikson’s swimming crew, Point Swimmers, joined him for breakfast by the shores of 63rd Street Beach. Everyone had a question: How did you map out your path? Why would you do something so crazy?
What do you want your legacy to be?
“That I was a water lover,” Erikson said.
The Point Swimmers wheeled Erikson to the water. The waves were choppy and unpredictable, similar to the day 60 years ago when Erikson dove in for a contest run by a Chicago car salesman. The salesman had offered participants $100 for each of the nearly 37 miles they could swim between Chicago and Michigan City.
Five other swimmers jumped in. Only Erikson swam to the end.
“We’re celebrating the start, and this is sort of the finish of my career,” Erikson said. “I never dreamed that it would have brought me to where I am now.”
For Erikson, life has always been an exercise in chasing the unknown. His travels through Lake Michigan led to more swims that tested the limits of human achievement, including two-way crossings of the English Channel and a record-setting trip from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Erikson trained his son, Jon, to become an even better marathon swimmer than he was. Jon Erikson retired after beating many of his father’s records.
The elder Erikson kept chasing. He trained his Labrador retriever, Umbra, to swim marathons. With Erikson by her side, Umbra set a Guinness Book of World Record for her crossing of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
At his day job, Erikson studied panpsychism, a radical explanation to the existence of consciousness, the awareness of being alive. Panpsychism attests that all elements of the world have at least some form of simple consciousness: trees, particles — water.
“Lake Michigan means life. The water, it’s inside of ya too, you know?” Erikson said. “When you’re in the water, I almost feel there’s a connection between the water inside of you and the water outside of you.”
Point Swimmers share Erikson’s passion for the lake. Member Karen Darling said they are “not an organization,” but a group of swimmers nutty enough to show up to the Point every morning and swim in the cold waters through the end of November.
Erikson is the oldest and most accomplished oddball of them all.
“Ted gets up everyday, and he does what he needs to do to keep on keeping on,” Darling said. “He’s the leader in showing us how to age, how to age as an athlete, and how to keep going.”
Qing Li is a newer friend of the Point Swimmers community, but she’s an accomplished marathon swimmer. Li said swimming Lake Michigan requires enough mental fortitude and physical grit to fight off the cold and stay afloat amid unpredictable wave patterns.
For younger swimmers, Erikson is a living inspiration.
“When you think about 60 years ago, there wasn’t the internet. There weren’t groups of people who were doing this,” Li said. “Today, the information is there, people are writing blog posts, you can connect with people and have an understanding of what you should be eating, how you should be training. Sixty years ago, that wasn’t there.
“They were just making shit up.”
Erikson said he’s grateful for the connections he’s made through his feats. Warren Sopher, an 88-year-old former triathlon athlete, placed his wheelchair next to his old pal by the water Sunday.
Sopher was there in Michigan City to cheer on Erikson when he arrived in 1961 after completing an all-night swim through treacherous conditions. The two shared “not a word” then. Erikson was whisked straight to the hospital to recover.
Sixty years later, the two reminisced by the same water.
“Ted is one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century,” Sopher said. “There’s no question about it.”
Erikson pointed to two kids swimming in the water, telling his friend, “I’m jealous.” Sopher chuckled.
Erikson still regularly swims a few laps in a pool and reads up on the latest findings in panpsychism. On Sunday, he donned the watch his son wore when he swam the English Channel.
Jon Erikson died suddenly in 2014, and Umbra has also faded into swimming lore.
Through the waves of life, Lake Michigan has been Erikson’s one constant. Looking out to the water never grows old.
“What got me into swimming in the first place is that I was on this shore, like here, and I was watching a boat disappear over the horizon,” Erikson said. “And I say, ‘That’s very interesting, because that’s kind of like life, isn’t it? Where you go into the shore, and you disappear over the horizon.’
“Hopefully, there’s another shore to arrive at.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: