Historic open-water swim to be held in Chicago River in September

It’s been more than a century since swimmers braved the open waters of the Chicago River, which was infamously used as the city’s sewer in the 1800s. But a local group hopes to change the public’s perception of the waterway with the first organized open-water swim, planned for the fall.

The Chicago River Swim is set to take place Sept. 22.

While the murky waterway may seem off-putting to some, organizers say the EPA deemed the river safe to swim in 2011.

“For those of us who have grown up around Chicago, it’s a little hard to imagine, but during most of the year, the water is clean enough to swim,” said Doug McConnell, co-founder of A Long Swim, which orchestrated the event.

The event —12 years in the making — is open to 500 swimmers and will raise money for ALS research. Participants, who must have past open-water or triathlon experience, can opt for either a one-mile or two-mile route encircling the Loop.

The last open-water swims in the Chicago River were held in the early 20th century, after the city famously reversed the river’s flow to improve sanitation. Still, pollution continued to accumulate until a renewed effort to clean the waters in the 1970s.

According to Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, the swim is emblematic of shifting conversations surrounding the once-contaminated waterway.

“Culturally, we have been working to change how people view the river,” Frisbie said. “It’s a celebration of collaboration and persistence, and people recognizing that we need to protect our urban waterways.”

Organizers plan to implement comprehensive safety measures. More than 100 safety personnel, including lifeguards, kayakers and emergency responders, will be on standby at the river. The waterway will also be closed to all commercial and recreational vessel traffic.

Water quality, which constantly fluctuates based on weather and surface runoff, will be monitored up until the morning of the swim. In the “unlikely” event of a combined sewage overflow, the event would be immediately canceled, according to McConnell.

“What we’ve been up against has been the perception that the river is still so dirty, and that’s not the case,” he said. “If the water quality falls apart, we’ll cancel the event.”

McConnell conceived the swim 12 years ago, after seeing a similar event in Amsterdam. To plan it, A Long Swim coordinated with city, state and federal officials before receiving final approval from the U.S. Coast Guard.

More than 200 people have applied since the event’s official announcement Tuesday, according to McConnell.

“I’m just thrilled,” the Chicago native said. “It just is so gratifying to see people embrace this idea.”

A world-renowned swimmer, McConnell has traversed the English Channel, Manhattan Island and Tampa Bay. Before, he was the captain of the men’s swimming team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The dangers of open-water swimming — currents, waves, even sharks — seem to only add to its allure.

“Getting into open water and then having all these new variables, it was just a new training challenge,” McConnell said. “It was great fun.”

His nonprofit, A Long Swim, was born from tragedy. In 2006, McConnell’s father died of ALS, a fatal disease which breaks down nerve cells and weakens muscles. Shortly after, his sister was also diagnosed.

The siblings founded A Long Swim in 2011 to fundraise through McConnell’s swimming open-water swimming journey. So far, the organization has raised over $2 million for collaborative ALS research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Watching someone you love go through ALS, the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming,” McConnell said. “The progress for a cure has been astounding. That is really rewarding and gratifying to see.”

The Chicago River Swim will also fund learn-to-swim classes for 2,000 Chicago at-risk youth, a partnership with the city’s Park District.

Pending this year’s success, the swim will become an annual event. McConnell envisions it embedding itself in the city, similar to the Chicago Marathon.

It’s currently slated for Sept. 22 beginning at 6:45 a.m. Participants will start at the Clark Street Bridge and navigate a loop course between State Street and Wolf Point.

“Chicago does big events really well,” he said. “We would love to be on that list, but in the Chicago River.”