Promontory Point: A marathon swimming landmark

Where are the sacred waters of American marathon swimming – the most historically significant swim spots? Aquatic Park (San Francisco), Brighton Beach (New York City), and La Jolla Cove come to mind.

But there’s another location – arguably as significant as those three – that remains remarkably below the radar. Promontory Point in Chicago. The Point was the primary training location of four Marathon Swimming Hall of Famers, including two Mount Rushmore-types:

  • Ted Erikson – First person to swim across Lake Michigan (1961). One of only two to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco (and record-holder since 1967). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel swim (1965-1975).
  • Jon Erikson – First three-way English Channel swim (1981). Former record-holder for two-way English Channel (1975-1987) and youngest one-way (14 years old in 1969). 31 professional marathon swim races.
  • Dennis Matuch – one of whose swim exploits I described here.
  • Conrad Wennerberg – coach and training partner of the above three, and author of Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.

More recently, I trained at the Point for my big 2011 season – often with Amanda, a two-time MIMSer.

Promontory Point

The Point was constructed from landfill and opened as a public park in 1937. With Hyde Park and the University of Chicago nearby, it soon became a popular swim spot. Marathon swimmers have trained there at least since the early 1960s. As Ted Erikson explains (via personal communication):

In prepping for the 1961 Lake Michigan Swim to Michigan City, I began swimming off the rocks from Jackson Park Harbor entrance to 67th St. Beach (1/2 mile course) late fall and early 1961.

Conrad Wennerberg, who I met at 67th, suggested the Point, where I occasionally swam to from 67th. The Point seemed more social.  So, I started off and on in 1961 and continuously from 1962 to present.

Similar to today, the Point Swimmers of the ’60s swam “laps” between the southeast edge of the Point and the 59th Street Pier (a 1-mile round-trip). Ted recalls:

Dennis and I would push each other for 1-10 mile training swims.  Most interesting were 1-milers with slow swimmers starting early and fast swimmers starting late such that ALL would reach the final buoy about 100 yards from finish at the same time. This made a nice race to finish for all which included Connie, Bill Tregay, Tom Lisco, Mike Paesler, Jon, and others, some who “handicapped their time” obviously beat us because of “saving” themselves for the sprint.

Was great fun, competition, and good training. Once Dennis found a foot at the finish, and holding it up, breathing heavily from the sprint, said “Who lost their foot ?”… (foot was from a passenger on a United Airlines plane that crashed off the Point a week so before).

Despite this rich history, the Point keeps a low profile even in Chicago – and even among swimmers. The city’s enthusiastic triathlete population primarily trains downtown at Ohio Street Beach, the site of Big Shoulders. (One might argue, this is a good thing.)

One reason is the Point’s relative isolation, 7 miles south of downtown. Another reason: Until recently it was technically illegal to swim off the Point. A few swimmers, including Ted, were even arrested in the late 1980s. But Ted and others held their ground and, through the power of community organizing (a Hyde Park specialty), pressured the Chicago Park District to create a designated “long distance swimming area” offshore from 57th Street Beach.

The politics of the Point makes for fascinating reading. For more, see this 2001 article from the Tribune.

And finally, like its peers in San Francisco, New York, and La Jolla, swimming at the Point is a year-round activity. Point swimmer and journalist Elizabeth Brackett recently filed this story:

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11 thoughts on “Promontory Point: A marathon swimming landmark”

  1. The guy that found a foot- that’s an incredible story. (Here I was thinking he found some “feet” to draft off! Oh how wrong I was!) Did a little looking to find the accident that provided said foot:

    Full NTSB report here:

    I’ve never thought to go there and swim. I don’t know if my type are welcome, but perhaps I’ll give it a try when it warms up and I don’t need a wetsuit (lest I be outed for my true identity).

    Great post though!

    1. Thanks Jared! I tried finding that flight but came up empty. Nice sleuthing.

      Your “type” is most certainly welcome. In fact, Elizabeth (the WTTW reporter who shot the ice swimming story) has won a couple age-group world championships in triathlon.

      1. Tying this all together- I’m often flying over Lake Michigan (as opposed to crashing in it) and have thought if anyone has ever attempted to swim across it. From your post above you say it has happened?!? Anywhere I can find details of that swim? It must be 50 nm across, no? (my rough pilot guess) And how long did that take? Start/stop point? I’m fascinated by this, and I’d love to share the story with my crews

        1. Here’s what I know of the history: In 1961, Chicago car dealer Jim Moran offered $3675 to the winner of a swim from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana (fittingly, a distance of 36.75 miles). 6 locals participated, and Ted Erikson was the only finisher, in 36h37m.

          In 1963, Moran offered $15K for a swim between Chicago and Benton Harbor, Michigan (60 miles). This time, there was an international field of 25. Abdul Latif Abouheif of Egypt finished first in 34h45m, followed by Ted Erikson in 37h25m. I think they were the only two finishers, but I’m not certain. This is, even now, the longest-ever professional marathon swim race.

          Other Lake Michigan crossings include:

          • Vicki Keith – Union Pier, MI to Chicago. 45 miles in 52h45m, in 1988.
          • Paula Stephanson – Rainbow Beach, Chicago to Michigan City, IN. 32 miles in 25h38m, in 2009.

          Our fellow Chicago Master Nial Funchion also swam a 20-mile route across the lake, but I’m not sure of his start/finish points (evidently further down). Last year someone did a 50-mile swim (Kalamazoo to Chicago), but it was in a wetsuit. There have been other wetsuit swims, but no one keeps track of them.

  2. Thanks for the Blog, Evan!

    The Point is a very special place to me and I don’t write about it nearly enough. The Point is the one place I really feel at home at over here even though it’s an hour’s drive from where I live. I don’t think I’ve ever climbed up the ladder not feeling better than when I climbed down into the water.

    Jared, thanks for finding the link to the plane crash!! Come join us! I’m planning on getting in around the end of April. maybe sooner because I miss it there.

    Did Marcia Cleveland and David Blanke (and someone else) do a long lake swim a few years ago? Can’t remember the details.

    1. The Point is my favorite place in Chicago, and one of my favorite places anywhere. It makes complete sense to me how someone would risk arrest in defending it.

      Yes, Marcia, David, and Chris Layton did the Chicago Skyline Swim (Evanston to Indiana border). Previously the same swim had been done by Kevin Murphy and (unofficially) Nial Funchion, but Marcia et al. have the speed record.

  3. Delighted to finally see a post from you on the Point. I’d long wanted to know more about it from following your exploits. More pics please.

    I got that video from the Point compatriot of yours in it, Greg.

    Check the 1st (only) comment on it. People always want to stop others having fun.

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