Learning to love swimming in Lake Michigan

Teresa Albano
5 min readAug 12, 2021
Lake Michigan at dawn. Photo by Teresa Albano

The ferocity of the waves can not be captured in a single photo of a rising sun, although my swim buddy, Aliza, tries. The waves’ height are, according to Lake Michigan Buoy #45174, 4.3 ft., coming every 6 secs. They hit the shallow sandy bottom and break with energy that easily knocks you down.

It’s impossible to confront high-breaking waves by standing upright, as if you were a courageous Black Lives Matter activist, standing your ground for decency, democracy and the First Amendment. You have to submerge or swim through them, which may feel counterintuitive. But when facing a force like water, being relaxed and flexible beats being stiff and rigid.

Aliza and I, teammates on an adult swim team, take to Lake Michigan during the summer of 2020 for sunrise swims. With pools closed because of Covid-19, lap swimmers have transformed into open water fanatics. Swimming for us, like many others, is moving meditation. Water soothes the soul. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” But to meditate while swimming in Chicago’s saltless ocean is a journey of 1,000 strokes.

Although I have more experience in open water than she, neither one of us considers ourselves open water swimmers. Aliza is bolder than I am and that boldness pushes me to try. I may have a calm exterior, but inside it’s all fear and dread. The waves. The cold temperatures. The vastness of this great body of freshwater. What swims below the surface doesn’t bother me. It is the fear of not getting back to land.

In fact, my experience swimming in the Great Lake Mishii’igan (one of the names the Anishinaabe people gave for this fresh water sea) was vexed. The first time I swam in the lake, eight years earlier, I got seasick. Despite the calm waters, a number of factors united in a nauseating cacophony. Wave action off the Ohio Street Beach seawall along with the heat of the day, the smell of gasoline, and the beach’s shallow water, which made visible the sandy bottom’s serpentine designs, knocked my internal balance systems off kilter. After swimming less than a half-mile, I walked back to shore to recover.

The next attempt came on a morning when the Great Lake was rocking and rolling with 5-foot swells. I jumped from the North Avenue Beach wall…

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Teresa Albano

Writers interpret the world in various ways, the point is to change it.