Dan O’Conor, the Great Lake Jumper

Dan O’Conor is best known as the Great Lake Jumper, but he’s also a Chicago-based artist and owns T-shirt company Dtox Designs. Raised in the north suburbs, O’Conor began going to concerts in the city in the early 80s, and his passion for live music led him to a career in the music and media industry. Over the years he’s worked for Spin, Grooveshark, Chris Schuba’s long-running national ad-sales firm, and others. 

During lockdown O’Conor rode his bike from Lincoln Square to Lake Michigan and jumped in. It felt so good that he came back and did it again. And again. Eventually, his morning jumps became a local phenomenon, especially as local musicians—among them Jon Langford, Mucca Pazza, and Mute Duo—joined him by the lake to play a song or two, helping raise money for O’Conor’s organization of choice, the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL).

Lockdown is long over, but O’Conor is still making daily treks to the lake. He likes to wear the Motörhead shorts he got at a concert years ago, and before he jumps in, he shares bits of music trivia from his enormous record collection. This summer, he’ll reach his third anniversary as the Great Lake Jumper. I caught up with O’Conor between jumps to find out more.

As told to Jamie Ludwig

When I started jumping in the lake during the pandemic, it had nothing to do with music. It was just that I was hungover, and my wife wanted me out of the house. I went to the lake, jumped in, and it felt good. With the politics and protests and the pandemic, it felt like something positive I could do to clear my mind. It just felt good. I could go down to the lake, have a 20-minute ride down there, listen to my music with no commercials, no other static, just me and my bike.

I wasn’t videotaping the jumps at first, because I couldn’t figure out how to record while playing music, so I just chose to play the music. I was wearing the Motörhead shorts I’d gotten at South by Southwest years before. On the SpongeBob soundtrack, there’s a Motörhead song called “You Better Swim,” so I was trying to figure out a way to soundtrack a jump, but I don’t think I’ve ever figured it out. 

My friend tipped off Block Club that this guy from Lincoln Square had been jumping in the lake for 150 straight days. That’s when WGN Radio and reporters started interviewing me, and they’re like, “When are you going to stop this? You can’t possibly go through the winter.” I had no plans to go through the winter. But why not? 

It was [January 2021], and my wife suggested that I have bands and artists serenade me as I jumped into the lake, which sounded like a strange idea. But I love Jon Langford, and so I asked him, and he said, “Sure.” He had this [Mekons] song from, like, 1985, called “Shanty”—a sea shanty that somehow got on TikTok and had gone viral. So he came out and sang that, and it was wonderful. I started inviting other musicians, and that’s kind of where it took off. There were no stages to play—I think for these artists to come down and play one or two songs, it kind of gave them a stage or venue.

we serenaded the #greatlakejumper @therealdtox with a song from the Wasteland Radio New Archives— pic.twitter.com/ALJrxhwGCS


February 22, 2021

Air Credits perform for Dan O’Conor in February 2021 as he climbs into a hole he cut into lake ice with a shovel.

I started having people ask me how they could donate to support me, but it wasn’t about me. The venues were the first to close and the last to reopen [during the pandemic]. So on WGN, I announced, “Hey, anyone that wants to donate, please donate to CIVL.” I think that helped the momentum. I’d invite an artist, and their friends would reach out and say, “Hey, I saw Lawrence Peters played for you. Can I play for you?” Ninety percent of that was over Instagram or Twitter DM. I had a little pitch written out saying, “Hey, this is why I’m doing it. I’d love to have you out.” 

From that January to June, I had four to five artists a week. But I was a moving target. I never knew when I was going to be there, because I was driving a bus at the time. I was driving a limo and juggling whatever stuff I had with the kids. It’s amazing that all of these artists showed up. Weekends were easier, because there were less conflicts. So that’s when I’d try to spread the word on Twitter and Instagram. 

I got mostly positive feedback from the artists, and I think there was a certain amount of, “I’m a musician, and I haven’t performed.” Even if it was in front of 20 people, that’s a buzz. Also around that time, there were several music photographers who started coming out. Ministry’s photographer, Derick Smith, and I became friends during the pandemic because he started shooting me out there. 

By March, I was like, “I’m over the hump. I’m going to have a party on day 365.” The night before that, they relaxed capacity restrictions. My buddy cooked 60 pounds of pulled pork, another one donated 50 pounds of sausage. We went through the pork in two hours. It just turned into something a lot bigger. I had wanted to aim high, so I asked Jeff Tweedy to come out, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.” So that was amazing in its own right. I asked Steve Albini; the last band I had seen before the pandemic was his band Shellac. And Jon Langford came out. And that was really cool, because he was the first artist [to play the jumps] and kind of the last. By the time he got there, it was raining buckets. And there were two ten-by-ten tents. He stood on a cooler in a tent and played four songs—it was really special.

Day 365- Jeff Tweedy #greatlakejumper @civl pic.twitter.com/aZpJrKl4wz

— Great Lake Jumper (@TheRealDtox)

June 13, 2021

Jeff Tweedy plays along as Dan O’Conor makes his 365th consecutive daily jump in June 2021.

I took a family vacation that July. So I was like, “OK, what can I do on the way out?” So I did two of the Great Lakes on the way out to Massachusetts—I jumped in Lake Erie in Buffalo, New York, and then I jumped in Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York. And I did a bunch of stuff in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and then I came back. 

[Jumping in the lake] just continues to feel good. I still get that cleansing feeling. It’s a great way to start the day. It did become easier when they opened the lakefront. Now I can drive my car out. I’ve needed a shovel at times to break the ice, though I really haven’t had to use the shovel much this year so far. I also started wearing water shoes, because my feet were all beat up from 800 days of jumping off the cement. My wife got me some foot balm for Christmas, and it’s amazing. I also have a flotation coat that I wear some days, when it’s rough, to keep me afloat. I know that it’s a dangerous situation, especially during the winter. You’ve got to get down there and block everything else out, and get in the water and get back to the ladder. 

It’s really been a huge positive impact in my life. I was depressed during the pandemic, and when I started this I realized I could go down [to the lake] and find a little Zen and a little peace. And I love Lake Michigan. I just asked my Web guy to update my website, because I’m going to have a third annual party this summer. In October, I went up to Lake Superior and Lake Huron to complete the Great Lakes. And last summer, when we were in Massachusetts, I did the six New England states in one day—I jumped in a river, a pond, a lake, and the ocean. I’m not going out chasing artists anymore, but if someone wants to come play for me, I’m happy to host. 

Dan O’Conor Credit: Derick Smith

About a year ago, I started thinking it was getting boring for people just seeing me, the guy in the Motörhead shorts, jump in the lake. I happened to be wearing my “A Boy Named Sue” shirt, which had something to do with Shel Silverstein—Johnny Cash made that song famous, but it was written by Shel Silverstein, who’s a Chicagoan. So I dedicated the jump to Shel Silverstein that day.

I wanted to tie in my albums—just because I think the visual of a big album is way better than a CD. Ninety percent of the time, it’s the day of or the night before, and I’m just googling what happened that day in music and trying to find something that I have some vinyl for, whether it’s my dad’s Frank Sinatra 78s or my older siblings’ Beatles or Stones records. Most of the stuff is not really about me, though I’ve done a few—like I used my Johnny Cash ticket stub as a visual because I’d gotten a guitar pick at the show, and when I flipped the ticket over the guitar pick was on the back. 

I try to keep it short. There were three women who jumped in with me today. They reached out through Instagram, like, “Hey, we’ve been wanting to jump in. Is tomorrow OK?” I’m always all for it. It’s a big lake—you won’t get in my way. It’s always fun to see others have that excitement of that bone-chilling cold and that endorphin rush. 

I brought out a Rod Stewart record. I find it hard to believe, but he has the Guinness world record [for the biggest crowd at a free concert] for playing for 4.2 million people on Copacabana Beach in Rio in New Year’s ’94. I couldn’t spit all that out, so I just mentioned that he had 32 solo records. Which is an incredible amount of records. When you look up music trivia, there’s Beatles and Elvis stuff almost every day, because those two have been documented as much as anyone, but I try to mix it up and bring something new. 

Tues January 10,2023 #Chicago …40 Degree Air & 35 Degree Water #GreatLakeJumper #LakeMichigan Dedicated to Sir Rod Stewart -Happy 78th Birthday @rodstewart @RodStewartFC @RodStewartSong @RodStewartLive @martylennartz @robertloerzel @LinBrehmer pic.twitter.com/WRMrATravD

— Great Lake Jumper (@TheRealDtox)

January 10, 2023

Dan O’Conor dedicates a jump to Rod Stewart on January 10, 2023.

[Now that venues are open,] it’s always nice to see a musician who came and played for me. I get recognized a little bit more, though it’s mostly by my joker friends, who haven’t seen me in a while. I see them at the show, and they have a new nickname for me. 

Music takes you to a time and place. It’s very subjective. Someone’s favorite show might be another person’s worst show. And you can bond with someone over these amazing shows. But to bring it back [to the venues], I think it’s like, “Hey, I was there. I had an incredible time, and I wouldn’t have had that without that venue being open.” So I think people are very supportive of their favorite venues, and for live music fans, I think this is an amazing time.

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