Ice Monster Number One

By Rebecca Fanning
Medill Reports

It’s noon on a sunny Thursday in October and “Diver Dave” Oliva is sprawled on a black inner tube wearing only a speedo; his mask and snorkel leave a wet mark on the concrete beside
him. He waves to passersby, some seem to know him, others just wave back, amused. Behind him, cars speed down Lake Shore Drive, rushing north from the bustling Loop.

“You’re late,” he says to me when I arrive. “And where’s your swimsuit? Water’s never been this warm in October before.”

Mike Tschantz-Hahn slides over a partially frozen Lake Michigan. (Steve Hernan)

Lake Michigan was 65 degrees today, but Oliva has swum in much colder temps. The “pioneer of winter swimming” recalls a day when it was 17 below zero and a layer of ice formed on the water as he swam. While many still think Oliva must be crazy, winter swimming has gained popularity in recent years and even inspired the birth of Open Water Chicago, a club for swimmers who crave more than the novelty of a polar plunge.

For 60-year- old Oliva, Lake Michigan is a both a retreat and proving ground; a place to relax and escape from life’s responsibilities while staying constantly attuned to the dynamic elements that converge where land meets water.

Swim Season

Open-water swimmers like Oliva pride themselves on swimming through the winter; using strong paddle strokes to break through the ice, taking cold showers for days before their swims and smearing themselves with Vaseline to protect their skin from exposure.

Oliva, who complains about the bathtub feel of water in Costa Rica and swims no less than one mile when he comes out on winter days, says it’s winter, not summer, when he finds the most peace out on the water.

“I actually swim slower in the winter. –Dave Oliva

“We relax at the half mile point, and before getting out. So I’m in a good 45 minutes to an hour. Because I’m not trying to break records. In fact, it’s more relaxing swimming in the winter,” said Oliva.

For the retired carpenter and his swim buddies, the first ladder south of North Avenue Beach is the unofficial headquarters of Open Water Chicago. Swimming in Lake Michigan after Labor Day is technically illegal, but police have come to know the regulars at “Ladder One,” which Oliva paints orange in an unspoken deal with the city to leave it in place year-round. No one has been ticketed in a few years for the trespass, perhaps because these diehards are competent swimmers and no officer has ever needed to jump into frigid waters to save anyone.

Hidden Treasure

After so many years of swimming off the coast of Chicago, Oliva is used to finding things. He’s fished out high-end bikes, two working iPhones, dozens of paddles and even a pair of handguns. This year alone, he estimates he’s recovered more than $10,000 worth of items, including a bag of cash. Oliva keeps some of what he finds, but he mostly sells or gives away items that he won’t use. His salvage efforts have earned free rentals at a local paddle board shop because of all the paddles he’s recovered.

Comrades in Ice

While Oliva often explores Lake Michigan solo, he sometimes swims alongside members of Open Water Chicago. Founded by Steve Hernan, the group meets at “L1” at sunrise on many weekend days. There is no fitness requirement and no fee to join, just a waiver acknowledging the dangers of lake swimming. Each new member is named a “lake monster” whether they swim in June or January, a title Hernan enthusiastically applies to anyone who joins.

Fred Collison swims through a field of ice. (Steve Hernan)

“I would consider Dave to be the unofficial steward of ladder one, says Hernan. “He’s completely devoted to that swim site, to the community there and to the people that he knows. The winter swims are always particularly fun because many times it’s just he and I. It’s kind of a camaraderie, we’re the only ones out there and it’s freezing out, we get some weird looks.”

Oliva takes his legendary status a step further, insisting he is the only “ice monster” in the crew, a category reserved for the man who considers Lake Michigan his private swimming pool. As fall begins to fade, Oliva watches with excitement as the temperatures plummet and a new Chicago winter boldly announces once again: “Swim season is in session.”

Prepping for the Plunge

As lake temperatures drop, Oliva, Hernan and the Open Water Chicago (OWC) group prepare for winter conditions. A few OWC lake monsters weigh in on their survival tips for winter lake swimming.

1. Drink plenty of fluids. Oliva sticks to water, and lots of it. “Drink more water than you think you need in the 24 hours before your swim,” he says. A hydrated body will maintain circulation even in cooler temperatures and will prevent the excruciating pain that comes from frozen fingers and toes. Avoid alcohol and caffeine and double up on electrolytes.

2. Fuel up with calorie-dense foods. Eggs, nuts and avocados are easy to digest and will keep you going for longer. Hernan says food is an often-forgotten but essential part of swim preparation.

Fred Collison enjoys the view during an icy morning swim off of ladder one.(Steve Hernan)

3. Stick to cold showers. Many swimmers swear by cold showers the morning of a winter swim to avoid that moment of shock when they first plunge into sub-50 degree temps. Hernan rises an hour before his winter swims to take a progressive shower, gradually lowering the temperature until he’s shivering and “slightly uncomfortable.”

4. Swim early and often. Open-water fanatic Marton Siklos says he keeps a log of each swim: the water conditions, temperature, time spent in the water and the distance he swims. It’s essential to “suffer each temperature,” and to swim multiple times per week as the water gets colder, he says.

5. Use the buddy system. While Siklos and Oliva have both been known to enjoy solo swims, the potential for shock of the onset of unexpected weather conditions make group swimming especially important. Group swimming could be the difference between life and death. “This lake is dynamic, it can be flat one second and have 6-foot waves the next, Oliva says.

Deep Dives

While most swimmers wear goggles and caps, Oliva swims with a mask and snorkel, paddling slowly while scanning the bottom for sunken treasure. The 9-foot depth off of “Ladder One” makes diving for artifacts easy enough, though Oliva sometimes uses scuba gear for deeper excursions.

Lake Michigan’s chilly bottom temperatures—it hovers around 70 in the summer and can dip to 32 in winter—preserve sunken items. Years-old shipwrecks, crashed airplanes and dead bodies have been recovered by others in near-perfect condition in the fresh-water lake. And as invasive zebra mussels pillage the waters for algae, the water has become clearer, making lost items easier to spot.

Photo at top: Nick Nielsen and Mike Tschantz-Hahn watch for icicles after a mid-winter swim.(Steve Hernan)