The Year of Living Ep!cally

To call 2020 the perfect year to accomplish anything noteworthy, one has to either be the world’s biggest optimist, or a master of determination.

It turns out, Jon Ornée ’03 — the proclaimer of such an ironic compliment about the year 2020 — is a bit of both. To pull off a monumental, relay-style swim across Lake Michigan this past August, Ornée needed optimism and determination in equal measure. As the organizer of the self-declared Epic Swim 2020, he also needed five other endurance swimmers, stunning weather, calm-ish waters, light winds, two boats, several support crew, and all of the stars to align (which they metaphorically did, but more on that later).

He got it all by providence and a perseverance born out of a life-changing event (more on that later, too).

While the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined an Olympics and stymied major sporting events in the U.S for many weeks, Ornée, his brother David ’05 and four friends — Nick Hobson, Jeremy Sall, Matt Smith, and Todd Suttor — gave themselves, and hundreds of others who followed them on a live tracker, something to cheer about. On August 11, from the shores near Rawley Point Lighthouse in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the six swimmers stepped foot into crisp 51-degree water and started their invigorating swim per relay rules set forth by the Marathon Swimmers Federation.

Left to right: Todd Suttor, Jon Ornée, Jeremy Sall, Nick Hobson, Dave Ornée, Matt Smith

After a couple miles, the Big Lake cooperated and warmed to 70 degrees, mostly staying there the rest of the way. For a total of 20 hours, 50 minutes over a course of 54 miles, Ornée and the other swimmers chased across Lake Michigan in 30-minute legs, swimming along a lane line dragged by a lead boat to keep them on track. At least one swimmer had to be in the water unassisted at all times, and the relay exchange involved a new swimmer diving off the support boat, coming up behind the previous swimmer and completing the exchange with a high five in the water.

In between “laps,” the swimmers recovered on the “chase” boat, consuming thousands of calories, catching little sleep and soaking up the experience as any good aquatic creature would.

“When you’re in the water, you really are just immersed in the water itself and in the process of swimming, so you can’t really appreciate the entire atmosphere,” says Ornée. “So, it was really special to have moments on the boat to get energized by the guys and to look out and realize you can’t see land anywhere. It makes you appreciate what a wonder and gift Lake Michigan is.

“Plus, there’s not a better place to enjoy the night sky than in the middle of Lake Michigan. It was an awesome night, too. The waves got bigger – two to four feet — but a meteor shower was going on that night and that was amazing to see. It all was a clear reminder that we are finite beings in the grand scheme of things and at the mercy of Mother Nature and the lake itself.”

When the Epic Swim team finished its quest, all stepping out together near Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington, Michigan, the athletes had averaged 1:18 minutes per 100 yards. What the six achieved was indeed an apt definition of epic for its length and its speed.

The idea to swim across Lake Michigan, which is the world’s fifth largest lake and third largest in the U.S., occurred to Ornée seven years ago, but it took a bike crash to get him moving on it. During the summer of 2019, while traveling at 27 miles an hour on his time trial bicycle on a northside road in Holland, Michigan, Ornée was struck by an SUV. The collision sent him airborne, and the violent landing broke his right arm and sprained his ankle but miraculously spared his spine, legs and head.

Still, the accident was jarring and perspective-laden, as most potentially fatal events are, and it caused Ornée to have an immediate epiphany as he lay on the asphalt in pain.

“When you’re a cyclist, unfortunately there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up on the ground at some point. In that moment, I was asking myself, ‘Why? Why do I do this stuff? Should I hang it up and play it safe?’ I imagined taking that route in life and then pretty quickly considered the other side and decided to double down on the phrase that came to my mind: ‘You only get one life, make it epic.’

“Now, I’m in a bit more of a hurry to do the things that I intend to do in this life since the crash,” he adds, “and the [Epic Swim] idea was still one that I felt strongly I wanted to do. 2020 seemed like the perfect year to get it done.”

Ornée, originally from Grandville, Michigan, and now a Holland resident, had wanted to swim across the Great Lake with his five siblings – who had all been competitive swimmers in their younger years – since 2013. But he and they waited on that idea for too long. “Now we’re a bit scattered,” he observes. “One brother is in California, one in Virginia, and we have a sister in Africa. But Dave said yes.”

At first, Dave Ornée was a bit hesitant to join in. 2020 may have been perfect timing in Jon’s mind, but Dave, who is co-owner and director of operations for Michigan Awesome, an online retailer that sells merchandise touting the Mitten State, admits he was initially non-committal due to work demands and family life. “I told Jon I would be a first alternate because I wasn’t sure how steadfastly I could commit to it,” Dave said. But as big brothers tend to do, Jon convinced his little brother to come along.

“In the end, I’m glad I committed to doing it,” admits Dave, who swam competitively for Hope. “I would have definitely had some regret of missing out had I not. The Epic Swim lived up to its name. It was crazy because it was a ton of work and planning for months and then in a much shorter period of time, it was over. It was surreal, but it was awesome.”

Most of the months-long planning landed in Jon Ornée’s wheelhouse as he studied lake routes and currents, contacted hundreds of charter boat businesses, and obsessed about weather, looking for the best frame of time to set aside for the attempt. A creative and curious guy, Ornée is detailed-oriented, too. As a musical artist (he once was the band leader for AG Silver and now performs with his wife, Necia, under the name Lady and Gentleman), a small-business owner (he founded and operates Creativino, a design company for wine brands and labels), and a health coach, Ornée is that rare breed — a big- AND little-picture guy. From the planning minutiae found in hundreds of emails to coordinate boat captains (two) and support crew (five), to the grander, give-back vision of partnering with the charity FLOW (For the Love of Water) to raise money to protect and preserve the Great Lakes, Ornée oversaw it all.

“The Epic Swim lived up to its name. It was crazy because it was a ton of work and planning for months and then in a much shorter period of time, it was over. It was surreal, but it was awesome.”

Dave Ornée ’05

Finally, once everything was swum and done, he did take some time to savor the accomplishment, but quickly Ornée was off to the next epic endeavor. In September, he set a world ultra-cycling record with an Epic Ride, a 369-mile journey with seven other cyclists who went from the bottom (Sturgis at the southern border) to the top (Sault Ste. Marie at the northern border) of Michigan in 15 hours and 56 minutes for an average of 23.2 mph. Then in October, Ornée notched another world record for the fastest 100 miles on a bike while drafting, doing so from behind his dad’s minivan on the Michigan International Speedway in 2:20:46 (for an average speed of 42.6 mph).

Ornée does slow down once in a while, though. Like when he started the Epic Adventure Academy this fall, a homeschool co-op he conducts with three other families for six elementary school children (two of them are his) “when a remote learning option and curriculum were presented by our school district due to COVID-19. So I’m a homeschool teacher one day a week,” he says on his personal website, “Our kids are learning a ton, spending lots of time outside and having a blast. Learning is everywhere.”

“I’m really not a thrill seeker. I’m not an adventurer-at-all-costs person,” he adds. “Being a great dad and husband and friend and community member are important to me. And so is living the best version of my life and encouraging others to do the same. I don’t encourage people to swim across Lake Michigan, but I do encourage them to do that thing that’s stirring in them. I think that it’s important that we all pursue our passions.”