George F. Wendt, who participated in the U.S. Olympic swim trials at 16 and was a champion swimmer at Fenwick High School and the University of Minnesota, drowned Saturday during his favorite swim event, the Big Shoulders race off Ohio Street Beach, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
He was 73 and lived in River Forest.
His relatives said they feel comforted that he died doing what he loved.
“He was sort of the heart and soul of Big Shoulders,” said Anne Wendt, his wife of 52 years.
He shared a name with his first cousin George Wendt, the actor who found fame as barstool bard Norm on “Cheers,” NBC-TV’s long-running hit sitcom.
But to many Chicago swimmers and Fenwick students, he was the star in the family. Mr. Wendt taught English at Illinois Benedictine College — now called Benedictine University — and Fenwick High School and is a member of Fenwick’s Hall of Fame.
No matter how chilly the weather or how choppy the water, he participated in all 30 annual Big Shoulders open water swims since the event’s founding in 1991, according to race director Chris Sheean. He was well into his 40s when he was the overall winner in 1993 and 1995.
“I don’t think he ever didn’t win his age group” at Big Shoulders, Sheean said.
His family said he was in peak condition. But after completing the first third of the 3.1-mile race Saturday, other swimmers saw him unresponsive in the water. A medical team was unable to revive him, according to relatives.
Mr. Wendt believed swimming staved off aging, his wife said: “His slogan was that he wanted to get slower, slower.”
In the summer, he trained off Promontory Point near 55th Street in Hyde Park. In winters, he practiced at the University of Illinois at Chicago pool or at FMC Natatorium in Westmont.
Mr. Wendt won many races organized by U.S. Masters Swimming. At a race in Portland in 2008, he set a world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle for the 60-64 age group, Sheean said. He also set records in 400-meter and 1,650-yard events.
“He is roughly 19 years older than I am,” Sheean said. “It was my life’s goal at one point in the pool to beat him, and I don’t think I ever actually accomplished that goal.”
Mr. Wendt grew up in River Forest and learned to swim at the Riverside Golf Club. Fenwick coach Dan O’Brien — who mentored champions including 1964 Olympic gold medal diver Ken Sitzberger — invited him to train with the high school swim team while young George was still in eighth grade at St. Vincent Ferrer grammar school, according to Mr. Wendt’s family.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, where he met his future wife, Mr. Wendt got master’s and doctoral degrees from Loyola University Chicago.
After teaching, he joined Chicago Metal Manufacturing, a company founded in 1908 by his maternal grandfather. He became director of a spinoff, Chicago Metal Rolled Products. It specializes in the bending of pipes and beams, including the metal trellis that arcs over Pritzker Music Pavilion at Millennium Park.
Mr. Wendt’s family followed him into the pool. His son Matt was captain of the University of Southern California’s water polo team. His son Dan captained the water polo team at Brown University. His daughter Kate Thompson was an Illinois High School Association champion swimmer who attended the University of Minnesota on a swimming scholarship. His grandson Bailey coaches the water polo team at Oak Park-River Forest High School.
Mr. Wendt served as president of the Chicago Masters Swim Club.
Regardless of a swimmer’s expertise, “He would make them feel welcome in the lane,” Matt Wendt said.
“He was just so affable and friendly,” said fellow swimmer Eric Johnson.
Mr. Wendt loved Johnnie’s Italian Beef, sandwiches from Alpine Deli in Elmwood Park and Peterson’s Ice Cream in Oak Park. He liked the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the slapstick humor of Mr. Bean and Mel Brooks movies like “Spaceballs.”
He loved the Japanese design of his west suburban home and incorporated Japanese-inspired manufacturing efficiencies at his company, his family said.
In addition to his wife, three children and grandson Bailey, Mr. Wendt is survived by eight other grandchildren.
Visitation is planned from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Peterson-Bassi Chapel, 6938 W. North Ave. His funeral Mass will be at 2 p.m. Monday at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in River Forest. A celebration of life for his swimming friends is planned Oct. 3 — his birthday — at Promontory Point.