Big Shoulders

From Openwaterpedia
Ross Bogue swimming butterfly at the Big Shoulders 5 km open water swim in Lake Michigan
Big Shoulders Swim, the most popular race in the Midwest
National Championship Race

The Big Shoulders 5K Swim (Big Shoulders Open Water Swim Classic) is the most popular open water swimming competition in the Midwest U.S.A. The 2.5 km and 5 km races are touted as a Lake Michigan-size test of guts, determination and fortitude amidst the chilly, windswept waves. It is one of America's Top 100 Open Water Swims.


Big Shoulders started with an inspired individual who had an inspired idea. Founded in 1990 by 1960 Rome Olympics gold medalist Bill Mulliken, Big Shoulders Swim has grown to be one of the premier open water races in the United States with over 1,000 participants.

Mulliken saw the City of Chicago, known for its tough but endearing demeanor, rugged work ethic and soaring skyline, as an unconventional but ideal spot for an open water swimming race. Captured as the "City of Big Shoulders" by the poet Carl Sandburg, Chicago is blessed to reside at the foot of one of the fresh water marvels of the world, Lake Michigan. Combine a Bill Mulliken with such an ample resource, great things happen.


As Bill Mulliken is fond of saying, "Big Shoulders is the world's most architecturally significant race" and is an annual race in the prestigious America's Top 50 Open Water Swims List. He gathered together the right allies and picked the ideal spot at the foot of the Hancock Tower starting on Ohio Street beach. Serving as a fundraiser for Chicago Masters and UIC Swim teams, Big Shoulders began as a roughwater 5K challenge of unparalled stature in the Midwest.

With the backing of the legendary Joe Pecoraro, Captain of the Chicago Parks District lifeguards, as well as the regard of Bill's business colleagues in the city, Big Shoulders launched with a handful of the heartiest and most adventurous open water swimmers in the area. A local celebration of the city skyline had begun, and the message was delivered: Lake Michigan is ready for all comers in the waters near Jardine Water Plant every September, the first Sunday after Labor day weekend.

Race Director

Every dynamic, energetic institution needs a solid captain to go along with the visionary founder. Big Shoulders found that leader in the earnest, capable hands of race director Chris Sheean. A prominent attorney, consummate family man and an open water swimmer, Sheean has shepherded Big Shoulders from a local phenomenon to a race of international prominence. The gregarious and able leader has grown Big Shoulders from 80 to 1200, while securing status as a Master's National Championship 5K race for the first time in 2000. Sheean overseen an ever expanding dossier of volunteers, sponsors and safety infrastructure as Big Shoulders enters its third decade.

Fun Facts

Pioneer long distance butterflier Tom Boettcher completed the first Big Shoulders 5K all butterfly (wetsuit division) in 1998, emerging from the waters hypothermic, exhausted and in the record books.

National publication "Fitness Swimmer" featured the race and his butterfly innovations amidst the backdrop of Chicago's skyline and Lake Michigan. The pictures told the story for enthusiasts around the country and the word spread. Boettcher completed his third straight all-butterfly Big Shoulders at the Millennial 2000 National Championship 5K event.

The Course

A 2.5 km triangular course in Lake Michigan.


Big Shoulders has evolved to meet the needs and interests of the swimming community. A 2.5 km distance was added in 1999, and at the 20th annual race in 2010, a Little Shoulders division and distance was added for the kids, our future Big Shoulders champs.




City Lake Michigan, Chicago

State/County/Province Illinois

Country USA

Region Americas


Name Chris Sheean, Race director


Event Information

Month: September


Class: Amateur

Wetsuit: Yes

Charity: No


External links