CHICAGO — One Saturday final June, Dan O’Conor started his day in a prickly and painful state. He was anxious from the coronavirus pandemic, troubled by American politics and, on this specific morning after celebrating his son’s highschool commencement with neighbors and some tumblers of bourbon, spectacularly hung over.
Fed up together with his whingeing, his spouse, Margaret, ordered him out of the home. He climbed on his bike and rode three miles east to Lake Michigan, the place he may see the skyline of downtown Chicago shimmering to the south.
Mr. O’Conor stood on the lip of concrete on the fringe of the lake, the place the water beneath was perhaps 15 ft deep and a bracing 50 levels. His head throbbed. He jumped.
“It felt so good,” he mentioned. “I simply needed to dam all of it out, the pandemic, all the pieces.”
That is the story of a 53-year-old man who has jumped into Lake Michigan day by day for almost a yr. Mr. O’Conor’s jumps have adopted the entire arc of Chicago’s seasons, from the gloriously heat to the punishingly frigid and again once more. And so they have almost traced the pandemic, too, from its early months until its waning days within the Midwest.
The day by day soar started as a non-public ritual, a method to escape the demoralizing information of the day, get a bit train and cheer himself up with a motorbike journey and the splendor of the lake.
One yr later, it has turn into one thing else solely.
What was as soon as a solitary morning dip within the lake now attracts an everyday crew of spectators: relations, pals, informal acquaintances, fishermen and, on some days, a pair of chatty girls from Poland who cease by on their day by day stroll.
The soar is a musical efficiency, too, ever since Mr. O’Conor started inviting native bands — a lot of them out of labor due to the pandemic — to serenade him as he leaps into Lake Michigan.
That was the place I first glimpsed Mr. O’Conor, who posts underneath @TheRealDtox, a nod to his aspect gig making stenciled rock T-shirts, which he offered at Lollapalooza and different festivals within the days earlier than Covid.
Final fall, I used to be in the midst of a yr of reporting that was targeted on the pandemic’s human toll. After interviewing individuals who misplaced spouses, relations and pals, emotional conversations that would stretch for hours, typically I might decompress by mendacity on the rug in my house workplace, taking a couple of minutes with my backbone pressed to the ground. Different instances I might go surfing to Twitter and watch a person I had by no means met flop into Lake Michigan.
It seems loads of different individuals shared this tiny pandemic escape.
“All of us have been sitting at house, bored and scared and uncertain of what’s happening on this planet,” mentioned Bob Farster, an actual property agent who’s a neighbor of Mr. O’Conor’s. “And right here’s this man with a bizarre mustache who retains leaping within the lake and he’s having a blast doing it each single day.”
After the primary morning’s soar, Mr. O’Conor got here again the subsequent day, and the day after that. Someplace across the fourth day, he posted an image on social media. A couple of month later, a buddy requested him if he was nonetheless leaping within the lake.
“Through the pandemic, it was a type of gentle,” he mentioned. “The whole lot was so darkish with the pandemic and the protests and politics. Then individuals have been like, how lengthy are you going to do it? What are you doing it for?”
Mr. O’Conor didn’t understand how lengthy he would hold leaping, and even notably why he stored leaping, morning after morning. However there was one thing about the entire endeavor that appealed to his huge, obsessive character and his appreciation for routines. Earlier than the pandemic, Mr. O’Conor, a stocky, gregarious former promoting govt for Spin journal with unruly hair, attended music festivals and reveals a minimum of twice every week — and took a small pocket book the place he wrote down each tune that the bands performed. There’s a plastic bin crammed filled with notebooks in his storage.
In instances of nice stress just like the pandemic, rituals can tackle a heightened significance. In March 2020, New Yorkers leaned out of residence home windows, clapping for well being care staff every evening at 7 p.m. sharp. Different individuals, jittery at house, baked bread day by day, scheduled a Zoom name with their households each Sunday, or went for a stroll on the identical time every night.
The day by day soar was slowly changing into Mr. O’Conor’s personal approach by way of the pandemic.
Through the winter, there have been days he may probably not soar in any respect: When Lake Michigan was lined with snow and ice, he needed to break by way of with a shovel to discover a place to fastidiously drop into the lake, then climb out once more. A girl interrupted him on the water’s edge as soon as, involved about his psychological well being.
“Are you making an attempt to kill your self?” she requested.
“No, I’m simply leaping in and getting out,” he replied.
Steve Reidell, a musician in Chicago, performed with a band throughout one in all Mr. O’Conor’s notably icy mornings. To get to the water’s edge, the band pulled a conveyable amp on an affordable plastic sled.
“I used to be like, ‘Do I need to play a present outdoors within the winter, even when it’s only one tune?’” he mentioned. “However I used to be fairly moved by what he was doing.”
Some individuals discovered it infectious, diverting, even inspiring. Others puzzled if he had gone loopy.
“I by no means received this straight-up from individuals,” mentioned his spouse, who runs a meals pantry in Chicago. “However individuals who have a penchant towards not being danger takers would give me a ‘How are you going to let your husband do that?’ sort of factor. However you’re with any individual for 30 years, you are inclined to get to know them. I’m not going to have the ability to inform him to not do it.”
Certainly one of Mr. O’Conor’s jobs is driving a paratransit bus within the northern suburbs of Chicago, taking individuals with well being points or disabilities to their appointments from early afternoon till late night — work that allowed him the time to do the soar every morning.
Just a few months in, a neighborhood media outlet, Block Membership Chicago, caught wind of his jumps, amplifying the eye from pals and acquaintances.
One buddy who was going by way of private issues started coming to the lake for the jumps, simply to begin his day on a lighter notice and get his thoughts off the adverse. Mr. O’Conor, a particularly social particular person earlier than the pandemic, discovered that due to the jumps, he was renewing previous friendships, making new ones and getting notes from individuals he had not heard from in 20 years.
Elaine Melko, a photographer who knew Mr. O’Conor as a fellow mother or father at youth baseball video games, has discovered herself drawn to the lake along with her digicam, partly for the possibility to socialize a bit.
“It’s nearly been like a bar with out drinks,” she mentioned. “Getting collectively by the lake and having a bit dialog, after which everybody has to go house.”
Final week, Mr. O’Conor arrived at his traditional spot at 10:30 a.m., sporting a protracted gown — a thrift-shop discover initially from the Kohler spa in Wisconsin — he had stenciled with the phrases “Nice Lake Jumper.” The solar was intense; a couple of individuals sat round speaking as Tim Midyett, a neighborhood musician, warmed up on the guitar.
“I haven’t performed in entrance of anyone since January 2020,” he mentioned.
Mr. O’Conor ready for his soar. There’s nothing elegant or suave about his method. He doesn’t swan dive or cleanly disappear into the water. He plunges, messily. Generally he executes a stable, and pretty spectacular, again flip.
He was nonetheless cheery as he emerged, dripping, from the water, and insisted on doing one other couple of tries earlier than he left.
“Refreshing,” he mentioned of the water. “Takes your breath away.”
Serendipity is guiding the tip of his yearlong quest: On Friday, Chicago will turn into one of many largest cities within the nation to completely reopen, with the lifting of pandemic restrictions and capability guidelines in eating places, bars and Mr. O’Conor’s beloved live-music venues.
He has one thing huge deliberate for Saturday, a grand finale by the lake on the 365th day. There will probably be shock visitor musicians, pulled pork sandwiches, veggie burgers and popcorn. Mr. O’Conor doesn’t understand how many individuals will present up. However he’s anticipating that a minimum of a few of them will soar in.