Brown: Some swimmers don’t want to wait to tackle Chicago River

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The Chicago River, earlier this summer. File Photo. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

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You’ve heard all the talk of making the Chicago River safe for swimming by 2020.

A pair of local swim race promoters have a much faster timetable in mind.

Don Macdonald of Wrigleyville and Douglas McConnell of Barrington are pitching local officials on a proposal to hold an open water swim race on the main stem of the river through downtown as early as next summer.

To prove its feasibility, they are seeking to hold a “test swim” on Sunday, Oct. 23, that would be open only to an invited group of elite swimmers.

This is where I’m supposed to joke that the test is intended to determine whether the swimmers can survive without getting sick or worse. But that would be cheap.

Actually, they’re just hoping to work through some of the logistics, assuming they first receive all the necessary permissions, which isn’t yet the case.


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The proposed swim race was brought to my attention because of an earlier column this summer voicing a tour boat captain’s concerns about safety on the river due to the unrestrained growth of commercial, pleasure and recreational watercraft in recent years.

Obviously, those safety concerns would increase significantly if swimmers were ever allowed to join the boat traffic already clogging the river through downtown. But this is a significant step short of that.

If a bunch of elite swimmers want to get a face full of some of the stuff I see floating in the river, and in the process perhaps raise some money for charity, I see no reason to let the air out of anyone’s floaties.

The promoters outlined their proposal last week to the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee, which brings together businesses, government agencies and nonprofits with a stake in the city’s waterways.

The one thing I found strange was their request at the meeting to keep any news about the test swim from the media. We take a dim view of that sort of thing.

Macdonald, who wouldn’t even confirm the Oct. 23 date, assured me it is “premature” to discuss specifics with so many agencies yet to give their approval.

The promoters met Monday with the U.S. Coast Guard. They had previously made presentations to the city of Chicago and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

The Emanuel Administration was noncommittal Wednesday when asked about the proposal.

Macdonald said the test swim would include only experienced open water swimmers, the type of folks who swim the English Channel, including the promoters themselves.

Macdonald said he fell short in his attempt to cross the Channel, but McConnell was successful. He said they have conducted or participated in similar swim events all over the world, including the Hudson River in New York and Boston Harbor.

By comparison, the hazards posed by the Chicago River apparently are less of a challenge.

“From our experience, this isn’t that big of a deal,” said Macdonald, who trains along the lakefront off Belmont Harbor.

As to whether swimming in the Chicago River is safe, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s new efforts to disinfect wastewater to reduce harmful bacteria means the river now meets federal water quality standards — until the next big rain dumps raw sewage in the river.

The bigger problem is the river isn’t really configured or managed for swimming, warns the MWRD. Between the boats, deep water (15 to 25 feet in most places), steep banks and few ladders, “drowning is a major risk factor.”

Presumably, all that would be taken into account in a well-managed swim race.

The race promoters are receiving support from Friends of the Chicago River, which sees the event as a way of showing what might be possible some day.

“Our position is that the river should be swimmable,” said Margaret Frisbie, the group’s executive director.

Unless you’re qualified to swim the English Channel, though, you probably ought to wait a while.

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