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Chicago man jumps into Lake Michigan every day, comes out better

Nearly a year ago, before he became the Great Lake Jumper, Dan O’Conor was just a guy with a hangover and a need to clear his mind, like a lot of us then, really.

Dan O’Conor, who calls himself the Great Lake Jumper, dives into Lake Michigan near Montrose Harbor while guitarist Cam Mahai sings “EndTimes.”
Dan O’Conor, who calls himself the Great Lake Jumper, dives into Lake Michigan near Montrose Harbor while guitarist Cam Mahai sings “EndTimes.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Dan O’Conor had no grand plan or higher purpose when he rode his bicycle from his home in Lincoln Square to the lakefront last June 13 and jumped into Lake Michigan.

He had no thought of becoming the Great Lake Jumper, the crazy guy who would jump into the lake every single day for a year, no matter the conditions, drawing attention to the plight of musicians and music venues hurt by the coronavirus shutdown.

No, back then, O’Conor was just a guy with a hangover and a need to clear his mind of the pandemic and the politics and all of the other stuff weighing on him, the same stuff weighing on most of us then, really.

It worked.

The water was refreshing, and O’Conor felt rejuvenated.

So he came back the next day and the day after that. It wasn’t until the fourth day that he took a photo of the lake and posted it to Twitter to chronicle the fact.

He didn’t start making videos until the streak hit Day 120. And it was yet another week after that before he began recording his actual jumps — with his camera phone perched in his shoe, which served as a tripod.

That attracted the attention of a reporter from Block Club Chicago, which helped make O’Conor a media star, his exploits quickly spreading to radio and television.

Still, in that first interview, O’Conor said he had no intention of continuing through the winter when the lake froze over. I mean, who would do a crazy thing like that?

By then, O’Conor had become a thing. And a thing needs a higher purpose.

“People kept asking: What is this benefiting? How can I support it?” O’Conor says.

The honest answer was that it was benefiting O’Conor and his mental health. But he realized that probably wasn’t enough.

His wife Margaret, who runs a neighborhood food pantry and knows well her husband’s passion for live music, offered a suggestion: “You should have people serenade you in the lake.”

O’Conor keeps a spreadsheet of the more than 6,800 musical acts he’s seen perform, beginning with Alice Cooper at ChicagoFest in 1980. He used to work for SPIN, the music magazine, starting as a writer before moving on to ad sales. These days, he drives a paratransit van in the suburbs and sometimes a limo.

So O’Conor teamed up with his friends at CIVL, the Chicago Independent Venue League, figuring he could promote the organization’s emergency relief fund to help furloughed staff, artists and performance venues.

As his videos chronicle, O’Conor, 53, didn’t stop jumping into the lake when it froze over or when winter waves threw car-size chunks of ice onto the shoreline.

Instead, he’d hack a hole in the ice using shovels, hammers, even a bowling ball attached to a chain to keep his streak going, moving his jumps inside Montrose Harbor only when safety demanded.

Since mid-January, musical accompanists have regularly joined O’Conor for his lake jumps, everyone from a woman playing a washboard to the 15-piece Mucca Pazza band.

In the videos, you can see the musicians play as O’Conor comes from off-screen and dives into the water.

Dan O’Conor in his Great Lake Jumper robe.
Dan O’Conor in his Great Lake Jumper robe.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

What O’Conor’s diving lacks in style, he makes up with enthusiasm. His best dive is a front somersault — a throwback to growing up in Buffalo Grove, attending Wheeling High School and playing football well enough to make the Sun-Times’ all-state team in 1985.

At this point, it should be simple for O’Conor to keep going through June 12, which will be Day 365.

He isn’t saying for sure he’ll quit that day. But he’s got a family vacation scheduled for July on Cape Cod, so it will end.

On Wednesday, Day 341, O’Conor jumped from the point beyond Montrose Harbor, with guitarist Cam Mahai alongside wearing a red clown nose and singing “EndTimes.”

O’Conor’s 19-year-old son Keith was there, as he has been for most of his dad’s jumps since the start of winter, when Margaret insisted that O’Conor not go out there alone.

“It’s incredible, a little bit inspiring, the commitment,” Keith says of his dad. “He has not missed a day, and I’ve witnessed that. That’s definitely changed my view on how motivated you can be for anything.”

Who is to say where the boundary of perseverance, commitment, determination and obsession lies? Not me.

O’Conor climbs from the water in his Motorhead swim trunks, and he smiles a genuine smile beneath his drooping handlebar moustache.

He makes those who see him smile.

What’s so crazy about that?