CHICAGO — On a Saturday last June, Dan O'Conor started his day in a prickly and painful condition. He was terrified by the coronavirus pandemic, troubled by American politics, and had a spectacular hangover on this particular morning after celebrating his son's high school graduation with neighbors and a few cups of bourbon.
Tired of his whining, his wife, Margaret, ordered him out of the house. He got on his bike and rode three miles east to Lake Michigan, where he could see the downtown Chicago skyline glittering to the south.
Mr. O'Conor stood on the edge of concrete at the edge of the lake, where the water below was perhaps 15 feet deep and an invigorating 50 degrees. His head pounded. He jumped.
"It felt so good," he said. "I just wanted to block it all, the pandemic, everything."
This is the story of a 53-year-old man who jumped every day in Lake Michigan for almost a year. The Leaps of Mr. O'Conor have followed the full arc of Chicago's seasons, from the gloriously warm to the punishingly frigid and back again. And they've pretty much traced the pandemic, too, from the early months to the waning days in the Midwest.
The daily jump started out as a private ritual, a way to escape the demoralizing news of the day, do a little exercise and cheer oneself up with a bike ride and the splendor of the lake.
A year later it has become something completely different.
What was once a lonely morning dip in the lake now attracts a steady crowd of onlookers: relatives, friends, casual acquaintances, fishermen and, on some days, a few chatty women from Poland who pass by on their daily walk.
The jump is also a musical performance since Mr. O'Conor began inviting local bands—many of them out of work due to the pandemic—to serenade him as he hops in Lake Michigan.
That was where I first glimpsed Mr. O'Conor, who posts under @TheRealDtox, a nod to his side act making stenciled rock T-shirts, which he sold at Lollapalooza and other festivals in the days before Covid.
Last fall, I was in the midst of a year of reporting focused on the human toll of the pandemic. After interviewing people who lost spouses, relatives and friends, emotional conversations that could last for hours, I sometimes decompressed by lying on the carpet in my home office, taking a few minutes with my back pressed to the floor. Other times, I logged into Twitter and saw a man I'd never met plop down in Lake Michigan.
It turns out that plenty of other people shared this little pandemic escape.
“We were all sitting at home bored and scared and unsure of what was going on in the world,” said Bob Farster, a real estate agent who is a neighbor of Mr. O'Conor. "And here's this guy with a weird mustache who keeps jumping in the lake and has a blast doing it every day."
After the jump the first morning, Mr. O'Conor came back the next day, and the day after. Sometime around the fourth day, he posted a photo on social media. About a month later, a friend asked him if he was still jumping into the lake.
"During the pandemic, it was kind of a light," he said. “Everything was so dark with the pandemic and the protests and politics. Then people were like, how long are you going to do it? What are you doing it for?”
Mr. O'Conor didn't know how long he would keep jumping, or even in particular why he kept jumping morning after morning. But there was something about the whole undertaking that appealed to his big, obsessive personality and his appreciation for routine. Before the pandemic, Mr. O'Conor, a stocky, sociable former Spin magazine advertising executive with unruly hair, attended music festivals and shows at least twice a week — and took a small notebook with him in which he wrote down every song the bands played. . In his garage is a plastic bin full of notebooks.
In times of great stress, such as the pandemic, rituals can become more important. In March 2020, New Yorkers were leaning out of the windows of an apartment and applauding health workers at 7 p.m. every night. sharp. Other people, nervous at home, baked bread daily, planned a Zoom call with their families every Sunday, or went for a walk at the same time every night.
The daily jump gradually became Mr. O'Conor's own way through the pandemic.
During the winter, there were days when he couldn't jump at all: When Lake Michigan was covered in snow and ice, he had to break through with a shovel to find a place to carefully fall into the lake and then climb out again. . A woman interrupted him at the water's edge once, concerned about his sanity.
"Are you trying to commit suicide?" she asked.
"No, I'll just jump in and get out," he replied.
Steve Reidell, a musician in Chicago, played with a band during one of Mr. O'Conor. To get to the waterfront, the band pulled a portable amplifier on a cheap plastic sled.
"I thought, 'Do I want to play a show outside in the winter, even if it's just one song?'" he said. "But I was quite moved by what he was doing."
Some people found it infectious, distracting, and even inspiring. Others wondered if he had gone mad.
"I've never gotten this directly from people," said his wife, who runs a food bank in Chicago. "But people who have a penchant for not taking risks would give me a kind of 'How can you let your man do this?' But when you've been with someone for 30 years, you tend to get to know them. I can't tell him not to."
One of Mr. O'Conor's jobs is driving a paratransit bus in the northern suburbs of Chicago, taking people with health problems or disabilities to their appointments from early afternoon to late evening – work that gave him time to make the jump every morning.
A few months later, a local media outlet, Block Club Chicago, got wind of his jumps, thereby increasing the attention of friends and acquaintances.
A friend who was having personal issues started coming to the lake for the jumps, just to start his day more light-hearted and take his mind off the negative. An extremely sociable person before the pandemic, Mr O'Conor found that through the leaps he renewed old friendships, made new ones and got notes from people he hadn't heard from in 20 years.
Elaine Melko, a photographer who Mr. Known as a co-parent at youth baseball games, O'Conor was drawn to the lake with her camera, in part to socialize a bit.
"It's almost a bar with no drinks," she said. "Get together by the lake and have a little chat, and then everyone should go home."
Last week, Mr. O'Conor arrived at his usual spot at 10:30 a.m., dressed in a long robe — a thrift store find originally from the Kohler spa in Wisconsin — which he had stencilled with the words "Great Lake Jumper." The sun was intense; a few people sat chatting while Tim Midyett, a local musician, warmed up on the guitar.
"I haven't played for anyone since January 2020," he said.
mr. O'Conor prepared for his jump. There is nothing elegant or artful about his technique. It doesn't dive like a swan or disappear neatly into the water. He dives, messy. Sometimes he performs a solid and fairly impressive backflip.
He was still cheerful when he emerged from the water dripping and insisted on making a few more attempts before he left.
'Refreshing,' he said about the water. "Are you breathless."
Serendipity is leading the end of its years-long quest: On Friday, Chicago will become one of the largest cities in the country to fully reopen, with the lifting of pandemic restrictions and capacity regulations in restaurants, bars and the beloved live music venues.
He has something big planned for Saturday, a grand finale by the lake on the 365th day. There are surprising guest musicians, pulled pork sandwiches, veggie burgers and popcorn. mr. O'Conor doesn't know how many people will show up. But he expects at least some to jump in.