6 friends prepare for 60-mile ‘Epic Swim' across Lake Michigan

Update: How 6 friends made ‘Epic Swim’ across Lake Michigan

Jon Ornée, who has made a life out of completing ultra-endurance challenges, is preparing to tackle his next big challenge. But this time, he won’t be doing it alone. He and five friends will swim in a relay across Lake Michigan.

It’s an idea he’s been considering for years.

Ornée is one of six children, all of whom were all-state or all-American swimmers. The siblings tried to put a relay together seven years ago.

“We tried, but, with us spread out all over the country, it just wasn’t realistic,” Ornée says. Despite the plan falling apart, the Park Township resident never truly stopped thinking about it, and finally has put together a team. 

Ornée, his brother David, Nick Hobson, Jeremy Sall, Todd Suttor, and Matt Smith already have been training. He says the team has completed several day and night practice swims, though they’ve never gone more than a few miles from the shore. All of the athletes live in the Holland-Zeeland area. 

They hope to attempt the swim this week, which is in the tail end of their July 24-Aug. 16 target window. 

“We are still hoping to get it done. We won’t go in gnarly conditions, so we are going to wait for conditions that give us a decent chance of success,” Ornée says. 

10 miles each

Each team member will swim a total of about 10 miles each, adding up to the roughly 60 miles of open water. A boat will lead the swimmers, dragging a lane line behind it, creating a sort of never-ending pool. 

The support boat also will be outfitted with a GPS, both for safety and for broadcasting swimmers’ locations for the live tracker available on epicswim2020.com

The 'Epic Swim' Team plus friend Paul Brinks: L to R: Jon Ornée, Jeremy Sall, Matt Smith, Todd Suttor, Paul Brinks, Nick Hobson and Dave Ornée.

They will rotate swimming 20 minutes and resting an hour and 40 minutes. They will leave from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, at the Rawley Point (Twin River) Lighthouse and land in Ludington, Michigan, at near the Big Sable Point Lighthouse. The 60-mile swim is expected to take between 24-30 hours.  

Swimming 10 miles will be a 3-mile increase from Ornée’s longest swim — the 7 miles to North Manitou Island near Sleeping Bear Dunes. That 2019 adventure made him the first person on record to swim from Pyramid Point to North Manitou Island near Glen Arbor. 

For his upcoming swim, he is working to be certified through Guinness World Records and swimming organizations World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) and Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF).

Aside from his ultra-endurance endeavors, he pursues his artistic side. He and his wife Necia, a Spanish teacher at Black River Public School, have formed Lady & Gentleman, a pop-folk-rock duo that makes music. Ornée also has his marketing agency, Creativino.

A physical setback

Ornée competed in triathlons for about 15 years and has some competitive swimming experience under his belt. Gradually, he became more interested in ultra-endurance challenges, like cycling across the state of Michigan.

While training to set a speed record for cycling across the state last May, Ornée was struck by an SUV, causing trauma all over his body and severely damaging his right arm. 

“I had a life moment while lying in pain, and I thought, ‘Should I stop doing these things?’ Heck no! This is what makes me feel alive.’”

Though his injuries were a physical setback, Ornée says he felt mentally stronger than ever. 

He recovered, pushed even harder and broke the ultra-cycling record for crossing Michigan, which was his first ultra-endurance victory. Last year, he and four cycling teammates set a World Ultra Cycling record by racing 205 miles from Bronson Park in Muskegon to Port Sanilac in 8 hours, 17 minutes (24.8mpg avg). 

“There’s no adventure without adversity,” Ornée says. “That’s always kind of been a mantra in my family.”

Lake variables

Ornée’s adversity didn’t end with his recovery. Lake Michigan seems to play by its own rules, changing its currents, temperatures, and waves at a moment’s notice. 

“Most of the variables are out of our control,” Ornée explains. “Recently, the lake flipped, meaning the surface water switched with the water below it, and the temperature went from 72 to 42 degrees in an hour.”

According to Ornée, temperature will not be a deterrent unless it is so low it poses a risk of endangering a swimmer’s life. The athletes will swim in wetsuits to protect themselves from the cold. For him, the biggest risk is a thunderstorm rolling across the lake, which could create waves big enough to flip the support boat. 

As an endurance athlete, Ornée has learned countless life lessons and discovered many things about the human mind that some go their whole lives without knowing.

With that in mind, he offers this advice: “Go get after that thing you’ve been putting off.”

Ornée plans to give updates on his Lake Michigan adventure at epicswim2020.com
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