Einstein with Swim Goggles
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Photo: Michael Goss
The man with the short grizzled beard and blue goggles is one of several swimmers doing mid-morning laps in the IIT Keating Sports Center pool. His arms move methodically in the rhythm of the freestyle—stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke-breathe. These days, his pace is a leisurely one mile per hour. But in 1967, retired chemistry and physics teacher Ted Erikson (CHE ’52, M.S. CHEM ’59) was nearly twice as fast, a human projectile in a harrowing long-distance swim whose record still stands.
That year, Erikson swam 26.4 nautical miles in 14:38 between California’s Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge. The water was notable for its cold temperatures, strong currents, and deadly creatures, specifically, great white sharks, orcas, and jellyfish. It was his third attempt to conquer the Farallons channel, as his second attempt the previous year resulted in a small snag—his temporary “death” due to hypothermia.
“I was swimming, but I wasn’t conscious,” says Erikson, in typical good humor and wearing his favorite T-shirt with the motto “Old swimmers never die—They just wade away.” No longer in the pool, he continues to make swimming motions from a bench in the Keating gallery as he talks. “They pulled me out of the water, wrapped me in a blanket, and finally got me to stop swimming. After I began to relax, the nurse didn’t feel a pulse and reported me dead.”
Erikson’s resilience is a combination of self-described eccentricity, stubborn determination, and his rejection of the mainstream. Whether exploring panpsychism—the view that all matter, including water, has awareness—or fighting to preserve the shoreline of his beloved Hyde Park neighborhood sun and swim sanctuary, Promontory Point, Erikson is a true force, both in and out of the water.
“Ted is one of the most unusual people on the planet,” says Vito Bialla, co-founder of the Farallon Islands Swimming Federation (FISF). “He swims in order to shut his mind down and stop it from racing through mathematical problem-solving. Quite the brilliant man, he is an Einstein with swim goggles.”
Born in Chicago at “a hospital near 39th and the Lake [Michigan],” Erikson has lived near a body of water his entire life except from ages 6–14, when his family moved to his stepfather’s ranch in land-locked Montana. But even there he thought about water, or more specifically, the lack of it, when drought hampered his family’s farming and cattle operations. His father suggested he return to Chicago to attend what is now South Shore International College Prep High School. After graduation, Erikson entered the United States Navy. Water drew him to submarine service, then to Key West, Fla., where he joined his first swim team.
After the military, Erikson enrolled at IIT. During registration, he met the swim coach, who invited him to participate in a meet that evening. Erikson took first place in both events he entered, the 220- and 440-meter swims, and later was named swim captain while an undergraduate.
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