60 Years Ago, Ted Erikson Just Got Started

60 Years Ago, Ted Erikson Just Got Started

Courtesy of David Travis and Laura Fletcher.

60 years ago on August 22nd, Ted Erikson competed in his first professional marathon swim along the shores of Lake Michigan and the community of urban swimmers are still amazed of the legendary swims throughout his career (including four 24-hour marathon swims between 1961 and 1965).

The International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer earned US$3,750 in the 1961 Jim Moran Lake Michigan Swim (value today: US$33,762) for his first professional marathon swim in Lake Michigan. He swam 59 km from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana in that 1961 race that ultimately took him 36 hours 37 minutes to finish. Later, he later completed a record double crossing of the English Channel in 30 hours 3 minutes on his third two-way attempt. His record stood for 10 years until it was broken by his son, Jon Erikson.

Laura Fletcher explains, “Alaskan professor Harry Briggs and lifeguard Joe Griffith attempted to swim across the lake a total of five times during the 1950s and 1960s before Chicago car salesman Jim “The Courtesy Man” Moran sponsored a race with a prize of US$3,675—or US$100 for each of 36.75 miles between Chicago and Michigan City— to the swimmer who could finally accomplish the feat. 

On August 21st 1961, Erikson jumped in the water alongside five other swimmers — including accomplished marathoner Mary Margaret Revell — only to be sent off course by a squall that created waves as high as 16 feet. By 2 am, everyone in the race had dropped out but Erikson, who persisted for 36 hours 37 minutes. He covered 43 miles before clambering onto the pier at Michigan City to be greeted by cheering crowds. He set a world record not only for first crossing of the lake, but also for time spent in the water for an endurance swim. 

Erikson went on to set another world record in 1965, this time for speed, as only the second round-trip swimmer of the English Channel. He set yet another world record in 1967 as the first person to make the swim from the Farallon Islands off the coast of California to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. This record went unbroken for 47 years, until a resurgent interest in marathon swimming during the 2010s led to several new attempts.

Erikson will celebrate the anniversary of his historic swim with a party on 63rd Street Beach in Chicago at 10 am on August 22nd. He will be joined by the Point Swimmers of Hyde Park whose members include women who made headlines this winter with daily ice swims in the lake, as well as swimmers from other organizations.

Erikson also trained his son Jon Erikson, who became the youngest boy to swim the English Channel in 1969. Jon Erikson went on to break all of his father’s records, including his two-way swim of the English Channel which lasted until Jon beat it a decade later in 1975. In 1981, Jon became the first person to swim the English Channel three ways non-stop. This feat remained unsurpassed for 38 years, until cancer survivor Sarah Thomas made the first four-way crossing of the English Channel in September 2019.

In addition to training his son to swim, during his retirement in the 1990s, Erikson trained his black Labrador Umbra to swim. Umbra participated in several major races, including the annual Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swimming Race in Istanbul, where she placed 40th and became listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1997, National Geographic Explorer filmed Umbra and Erikson swimming the Bosphorus race and the Dardanelles Strait—the legendary swim taken on by Lord Byron to honor the Greek myth of Leander and Hero.

Tragically, in 2014 Ted lost his son Jon to a sudden infection, two weeks after losing his partner of seven years Audrey Nape. Previously, he had lost both Umbra and his partner of 20 years Diane Richards. Following these losses, Erikson’s health declined somewhat, and he underwent a major surgery to address an abdominal aortic aneurysm. However, a commitment to daily swimming that he maintained despite serious health struggles, as well as support from a vibrant social circle in the Point Swimmers of Hyde Park, helped him to become bounce back psychologically and physically. He even got into online dating.

The isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2021 posed possibly the greatest challenge yet for the nonagenarian Erikson, who lives alone and was totally cut off from the normal activities that sustain him during this time. However, being technologically savvy, he launched weekly Zoom discussions with friends and family, as well as nightly Zoom chats with his sweetheart, 94-year-old Beulah Brooks. A retired Chicago Public School teacher involved in several arts organizations, Brooks is similar to Ted in her commitment to living an active and full life in her nineties.

Having worked for 20 years as a university research chemist, Ted is keep going by continuing his practice of daily science reading and the working out of equations related to concepts in panpsychism, the study of the relationship between consciousness and matter. At 93, Erikson is still as sharp as a tack. His ability to thrive by staying active mentally, socially, and physically active gives credence to much of the recent scientific research done on longevity and resilience, in particular the positive impact of swimming on both lifespan and the brain.

Ted’s legendary career includes encounters with sharks, shipwrecks, and hypothermia —and his life gives credence to much of the recent scientific research on swimming, longevity, resilience, and the brain. The vibrant and diverse athletic community supporting him in Chicago shows the success of wild swimming as an adventure sport, even with city dwellers.”

Photo credit: David Travis
Photo credit: David Travis
Ted Erikson with the Promontory Point Open Water Swimmers in Lake Michigan, Chicago, Illinois
Photo credit: David Travis
Three Farallon Islands swimmers: Ted Erikson, Kimberley Chambers, Joseph Locke Photo credit: David Travis
Ted Erikson at the age of 92 getting into Lake Michigan Photo credit: David Travis

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Steven Munatones