Open-water swim in Chicago River to be held in September, the first in more than 100 years

Kayakers pass sightseeing boats as residents enjoy the warm weather on the Chicago River in the spring of 2022. Organizers of a swim event in September expect 500 swimmers to participate. Applicants are given a rigorous questionnaire to fill out to assess skills.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

After 12 years of planning, organizers say an open-water swim in the Chicago River is set to be held in September, after receiving approval from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Swimmers may be hesitant to immediately jump into the river’s murky waters, as some raise concerns about bacteria from untreated sewage. On rainy days, runoff water pollution can occur, and swimmers can bump into boat traffic.

“We wouldn’t want to encourage people to swim in the river willy-nilly because you want to make sure you’re safe,” said Margaret Frisbie of Friends of the Chicago River, a nonprofit focused on the river’s health.

That’s why organizers set plans to ensure water quality and safety, leading up to the open-water swim — the first one in the Chicago River in more than 100 years. They will track water quality every 15 minutes, using data from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and the nonprofit water innovation hub Current.

“We’re going to be as transparent as can be with respect to water quality. At the end of the day, if a swimmer just isn’t comfortable getting in the Chicago River, then we understand,” said Doug McConnell, a world-renowned swimmer and the event organizer.

In the “unlikely” case of a combined sewer overflow, where wastewater discharges into waterways, organizers would cancel the event, McConnell said.

Frisbie said the water quality of the Chicago River has improved over the years and sees the open-water swim as part of a “cultural shift” on views of the river.

“It demonstrates that the river is a place where people can recreate safely,” Frisbie said.

On Sept. 22, the Chicago River will be closed to all commercial and recreational vessel traffic, organizers say.

Five hundred swimmers are expected to take part in the Chicago River Swim, which starts between the Clark and Dearborn Street bridges and will navigate a looped course between State Street on the east and Wolf Point on the west. They can opt for a one-mile or two-mile swim.

Applications opened Tuesday, and 100 swimmers signed up the first day, McConnell said. The application includes a “rigorous questionnaire” about swimming experience to find qualified athletes, he said.

“We’re looking for people who have done triathlons, where the swim leg is kind of comparable to this,” McConnell said.

Proceeds from the Chicago River Swim will also support local learn-to-swim programs for at-risk youth. The event also raises funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Swimming is such a perfect contrast to ALS, where the person starts to lose control of their muscles,” McConnell said.

McConnell is no stranger to these endeavors. He completed a 29-mile loop around New York’s Manhattan island. He sees the Chicago River as a “perfect example” of that experience.

“What a unique way to celebrate being a Chicagoan,” McConnell said. “We’ve all walked by the beautiful buildings and bridges and the river itself.”

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