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(Above) Swimmers, including Don Macdonald of Barrington, Illinois, at a 2015 open water marathon in Noblesville, Indiana.

12-Apr-24 – Responding to complaints from an alderman that a planned swim race in the Chicago River later this year lacks approval from the city, the founder of Chicago River Swim has clarified that City of Chicago permits will be secured after the United States Coast Guard has finished its work to coordinate the event.

It’s been seven years since Doug McConnell, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Swim, first announced a plan for 100 brave, vaccinated people to swim in the Chicago River, at that time from Ping Tom Memorial Park on the south branch 2.4 miles to the Clark Street Bridge on the main branch. It would have been the first organized swim in the river in more than 100 years.

That 2016 event did not happen, nor did the race that was announced in 2019.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

But on April 2, McConnell announced the Chicago River Swim will happen this year, on September 22, starting at 6:45 a.m. As many as 500 swimmers, meeting eligibility criteria, will participate. Starting near the Dearborn Street Bridge, the swimmers will follow a looped course stretching from State Street, west to Wolf Point, and finish around 8:00 a.m. near the Clark Street Bridge.

(Left) View from Wolf Point looking east along the main branch of the Chicago River toward the State Street Bridge, visible in distance just east of Marina City. (Click on image to view larger version.)

At the April 10 meeting of the Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation, 34th Ward Alderman William Conway expressed concern to representatives of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) that his office had not been notified of the event prior to McConnell’s announcement.

“I’ve gotten many calls from concerned citizens regarding the swim for charity event in the Chicago River set for September of this year,” said Conway. “This is not something my office was given a head’s up by anybody.”

Jennifer Johnson Washington, First Deputy Commissioner of DCASE, told Conway that “nothing is firm” for the event.

“The Chicago River swim announcement came out without any permits or approval from the City of Chicago,” said Washington (right). “So, we are now in talks with that group that is planning that swim and including all our city partners that would have to sign off on any special event permit for the city.”

Jennifer Johnson Washington

McConnell responded on April 11, explaining that because the Chicago River is a federal waterway, they are working “closely” with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), as well as various City of Chicago departments.

Doug McConnell

“Because of its jurisdiction, we are working under the auspices of USCG,” said McConnell (left), “and – at their request – [we] are allowing USCG to coordinate with the city to execute the event. That process is ongoing. Based on that, we believe we have taken all the approval steps necessary to date. When we are told that the coordination step is completed, we will file all necessary documents with the city.”

McConnell says the idea is “pretty novel” and planning the Chicago River Swim has been “a real education process” for his organization, the Coast Guard, and the City of Chicago.

“The changes in the Chicago River over the past decades are nothing short of incredible,” said McConnell. “What was once unimaginable is now possible. We are committed to conducting a safe event, backed by the latest in water quality technology and a thorough safety plan.”

Water quality, says McConnell, will be monitored “constantly” up to the day of the swim, using data from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and H2NOW, a water quality monitoring system administered by Current, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

The river will be closed to commercial and recreational vessels during the event. McConnell says there will be more than 100 safety personnel, including lifeguards, spotters, kayakers, and emergency responders.

The event has the support of Friends of the Chicago River. According to the 6,000-member nonprofit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved swimming in the Chicago River for 13 years.

“This monumental open water swim event is emblematic of all the work so many good people have put into transforming this wonderful waterway,” said Margaret Frisbie (right), Executive Director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Today, on an average day it really is cleaner than it used to be, and it is clean enough for swimming in most places.”

Photo by Steven Dahlman

McConnell, an investment banker from Barrington, Illinois, is an open water swimmer himself. In 2016, he swam 32 miles from Molokai island to Oahu, including 27 miles over ocean 2,300 feet deep, with steady trade winds, 15-foot swells, whales, dolphins, jellyfish, and sharks.

When he swam the English Channel in 2011, it took him 14 hours in heavy waves and pitch darkness.

Also that year, he founded A Long Swim with his sister, Ellen McConnell Blakeman, following the death of their father from ALS, the neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Ellen’s subsequent diagnosis with ALS. McConnell says events like the Chicago River Swim have raised nearly $2 million for ALS research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

The September event will also raise money for local programs to help at-risk youth learn to swim.

• Previous story: Organized swim in Chicago River has tentative date (2019)