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Every time Jon Ornée looked across Lake Michigan from his home in Holland, Michigan, he’d squint his eyes and look for the Wisconsin shoreline on the other side. It was an impossible task, of course—Wisconsin was more than 80 miles away—but he tried anyway.
“I’ve watched sunsets on this massive body of water my whole life,” said Ornée. “People who aren’t from here usually can’t quite grasp the awesomeness of this lake. It’s like a fresh-water ocean.”
This lifelong fascination with Lake Michigan deepened when he learned the story of Jim Dreyer, the only person to ever successfully swim across the middle of the lake. Many have tried, but Dreyer is the only one who has ever successfully conquered the long-distance, unpredictable weather, and ocean-like waves of Lake Michigan.
Ornée, who comes from a family of All-State swimmers and collegiate watersport competitors, was the self-proclaimed “black sheep” of the clan, opting for high school musicals and indoor track instead of swim meets and water polo matches. But that changed when he discovered triathlon in his mid-20’s: “These days, I swim more than any of my siblings.”
Every time Ornée would do an open-water swim in Lake Michigan, he’d become more and more curious about what it would take to get to the other side. “I originally thought of the idea of a six-person relay crossing with my five siblings seven years ago. I pitched them the idea, but we’re scattered around the globe these days and it just wasn’t realistic. But I’ve been pondering the idea ever since.”
Pondering turned to action in 2019, when an SUV hit Ornée while on a training ride. The near-death experience made him anxious to tackle the things on his bucket list, starting with what he called the “Epic Swim” across Lake Michigan. As soon as he recovered from surgery to put his right arm back together, he began recruiting for a relay team to follow Jim Dreyer’s record-braking 54.5-mile route. The first to sign on was his brother, Dave. He then tapped Matt Smith and Todd Suttor, fellow members of the Michigan Awesome Triathlon Team. Former Ohio State swimmer Jeremy Sall joined the crew shortly thereafter, and Nick Hobson, a local swimming legend with ambitions to swim across the lake solo, rounded out the team.
With pools closed due to COVID-19, the team trained four days a week—first, in a local pond, which warmed up earlier than Lake Michigan, then later in the lake itself. But the team found that training for a marathon swim was easy compared to planning for a marathon swim:
“The logistics were the hardest part, honestly,” said Ornée. “The biggest challenge was finding a boat/captain with lots of flexibility. From our conversations with people who have tried and failed in the past, it was clear that weather was the biggest factor. We chose a three-week window and hoped to pick a day with favorable conditions. Finding a boat and captain for an adventure without a firm date was almost impossible.”
Another major challenge was the timing of the swim itself. With winds and current, the team expected the swim would take at least 24 hours, which meant they’d need to swim through the night. “Deciding whether to start in the morning or evening was a major consideration. Do we tackle the night portion while we’re fresh and try to get the swim done before winds and currents turned east later in the day?” Visibility was also a concern. After copious research, the team lit up their boat, their bodies, and the water in every conceivable way flood lights on the back of the boats, an LED light on the goggle strap, LED lights affixed to safety buoys, and glow sticks on our wetsuit zippers. They also created a “lane line” of glow sticks in the water to ensure safety for the swimmers and good visibility for the crew.
After months of training, planning and obsessively tracking the weather, the team found a window of perfect conditions on August 11. At 4:15 p.m., six swimmers, six crew members, and a filmmaker departed from Rawley Point Lighthouse in two Rivers, Wisconsin in hopes of becoming the first-ever relay swim team to successfully emerge on the other side of Lake Michigan.
“When we jumped in to start the swim on the Wisconsin shore, the water was 51 degrees. There was definitely an initial shock—Oh, my, what am I getting myself into?” said Ornée.
Following relay rules set forth by the Marathon Swimmers Federation, all six swimmers completed the first mile together, then moved to a relay style with one swimmer in the water unassisted at all times. Every 30 minutes, a new swimmer would dive off the support boat, swim behind the previous swimmer, and complete the relay exchange with a high five in the water.
The waters of Lake Michigan eventually warmed up to 70 degrees, but nighttime presented a new challenge: “We had two- to four-foot waves for almost about four hours, which made swimming a bit difficult and resting on the boat challenging.” Still, the team members continued on. Twenty hours and 50 minutes later, the team exited the water at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington, Michigan, becoming the first-ever relay team to successfully swim across Lake Michigan.
“Getting to share the whole journey with the team—from the training to walking onto shore in Ludington after achieving our goal was super special,” said Ornée.
Though a lifelong dream has been realized, Ornée won’t be resting on his laurels. On September 19, he’ll tackle another relay challenge to race the 368-mile length of Michigan from the south border at Sturgis to the north border in Sault Ste Marie. Other future plans include an Everesting running challenge and a 100-mile cycling speed challenge on the Michigan International Speedway. Teammate Nick Hobson also has big plans for next summer—this time, to become the second person (and fastest ever) swimmer to complete a solo crossing across Lake Michigan.