clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ted Erikson, one of Chicago’s great distance swimmers, first to cross Lake Michigan, dead at 93

He once swam about 28 miles from the Farallon Islands — a haven for great white sharks — to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with a boat captain ready ‘to shoot at the sharks that were getting close to him,’ his daughter said.

Swimmer Ted Erikson at Promontory Point in Chicago in 2017.
Swimmer Ted Erikson at Promontory Point in 2017.
David Travis

Ted Erikson, one of Chicago’s greatest open-water long-distance swimmers, died Wednesday at a retirement community in Hyde Park. He was 93.

In 1961, he triumphed over storms and exhaustion to become the first person to swim across Lake Michigan.

Later, breaking swim records in waters off of San Francisco and in the English Channel, he had to worry about seasickness — and sharks.

His daughter Pam Perkins said the longtime Hyde Park resident wanted his ashes to be scattered in Lake Michigan. He was still swimming until a fall a few months ago required him to undergo rehabilitation therapy, she said.

Mr. Erikson once told the Chicago Sun-Times he got into swimming because “I was working as a research chemist, and I needed some exercise.”

Ted Erikson.
Ted Erikson.
Amanda Alcock / Sun-Times file

In 1965, he became the second person to swim the English Channel round-trip — England to France to England — setting a 30-hour and 3-minute record in the process. The record stood for a decade, until his son, swimmer Jon Erikson, shaved off three minutes.

Ted Erikson in 1966.
Ted Erikson in 1966.

In 1967, at 39, Mr. Erikson swam about 28 miles from the Farallon Islands off San Francisco — a haven for great white sharks — to the Golden Gate Bridge.

To protect Mr. Erikson, “The captain rode in the boat and had a rifle to shoot at the sharks that were getting close to him,” his daughter said. “The temperature of the water, the tides — it’s supposed to be one of the worst ocean swims.”

Ted Erikson in 1961.
Ted Erikson in 1961.

“He is a legendary marathon swimmer” and a member of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, said Laura Fletcher, a former senior writer with the Illinois Institute of Technology Alumni Association who researched his career for his alma mater, where he worked as a chemist at the IIT Research Institute.

In 1961, it took him 36 hours and 37 minutes to swim from McCormick Place to Michigan City, Ind. With squalls pushing him off course, the 37-mile journey stretched to about 43 miles, Fletcher said, and he lost 17 pounds along the way.

After emerging from the water, he told reporters: “I used to drink martinis and smoke a pack and a half of cigarettes a day.” But he said he gave up those habits a year before his lake crossing.

Young Ted grew up in Montana, where “he rode his horse to school,” his daughter said.

After serving in the Navy, he got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Fletcher said, then worked at the university for 21 years before going on to teach math, physics and chemistry at Hammond Technical High School.

He used to tell his students there: “The starting gun for you went off about 15 years ago. Why are you wasting your time? Go for it.”

Mr. Erikson enjoyed swimming off Promontory Point. Even when he wasn’t up to swimming, he liked to go there and visit other swimmers.

Ted Erikson at an Illinois Institute of Technology alumni swim meet in 2016.
Ted Erikson at an Illinois Institute of Technology alumni swim meet in 2016.
Laura Fletcher

In a 1988 interview, he described his philosophy as: “Old swimmers never sink. They just keep floating belly up.”

He remained intellectually curious and social, Fletcher said. “He kept going to swim meets and kept going to breakfast with swimmers,” she said.

His daughter said, as he got older, Mr. Erikson would joke about the lack of competition, saying, “There wasn’t anyone else in my age group.”

She said he had an active social life: “Lady friends, he had tons.”

His son Jon died in 2014, and his longtime companion Diane Richards died in 2004. In addition to his daughter Pam, Mr. Erikson is survived by his former wife Loretta Bacskai, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and friend Beulah Brooks.