GLEN ARBOR — As if a 7.4 mile swim with a bum arm on Friday wasn’t impressive enough, Jon Ornée went for a brisk 205-mile bike ride just to smash a World Ultra Cycling record on Monday.
The physical feats of fortitude come mere months after Ornée’s right elbow was decimated when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle on May 16. Ornée said his olecranon — or the pointy part of his elbow — was “hacked clean off” and floating up in the middle of his bicep.
The 38-year-old health coach required extensive surgery to repair his dominant arm, including the insertion of two long stainless steel pins and a tension wire to hold it all together. Although his arm was completely out of commission for nine weeks, it was the prospect of getting back in the water and on his bike that motivated him through his recovery and rehabilitation.
In the first moments of the crash and several times since the accident, Ornée said there was an uncertainty and a fear that he might not recover enough to chase his adrenaline-fueled passion. But his will overcame that fear.
“I had my mind set on the goal and chose to not let a road block deter me,” Ornée said. “I wanted to try and accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish and not say, ‘Aw, shucks ... I guess I can’t do it anymore.’”
The first item to check off on his bucket list was a swim to North Manitou Island. Ornée said the decision to depart from Pyramid Point was because of the “iconic nature” of the area and the reality that his injury would limit him to the narrowest point — 7.4 miles — between the two land masses.
Once doctors gave Ornée the “all clear” on resuming physical activities, the Holland, Michigan, resident hit the water and began swimming with a hybrid of the butterfly and freestyle strokes that put less strain on his right arm. His original departure date before the injury was August, but Ornée pushed it back to September to give him an extra month to regain his strength.
Ornée also knew he couldn’t make the solo journey alone without safety measures, but he was struggling to find people to make the voyage alongside him. It wasn’t until he met Robert Lowing during Labor Day weekend and Justin Acker just 36 hours before the big day that he had his team in hand. Lowing followed along in a sea kayak and Acker in a 17-foot Boston Whaler Boat.
“I once swam a quarter mile in the ocean and was winded,” Lowing said. “He made 7 miles look easy.”
Acker was concerned about a large freighter ship that appeared during the swim and thought it might throw a huge wake or — even worse — turn and head toward them. Fortunately, the freighter stayed away and the water was as calm as glass.
“As long as you can see the side of the freighter, you’re OK,” Lowing said. “If you can see the bow, you’ve got a problem.”
The conditions remained ideal for the swim. Ornée said it was the calmest he’d ever seen Lake Michigan, and the temperature was perfect too — just a week after it was a bone-chilling 48 degrees.
Although the depths of the water reached close to 50 feet, Ornée said there was “no fear at all.”
“The only thought in my mind for two hours and 50 minutes was pure gratitude,” he said. “I was just so grateful I was able to do it at all and over the moon that the conditions lined up the way they did and that a boat captain appeared from nowhere the way he did. It was perfect.”
The last quarter mile was the most strenuous, and Ornée said it was “really good to have my fingers hit the rocky sand of the island.”
“I couldn’t stand up right away,” he said. “I had to just sit in the water for a minute.”
Once he was on his feet, Ornée wasn’t resting on his laurels. He was already geared up for the 205-mile bike ride from Muskegon to Port Sanilac, which was pushed back to Monday because of inclement weather Sunday.
The goal was to eclipse the current record of nine hours and 12 minutes. Ornée and his four team members did just that, by nearly a full hour. They completed the voyage in eight hours and 17 minutes, averaging a clip of 24.7 mph. Ornée said they averaged 28 mph the last 10 miles and 31.2 mph the last 6.5 miles
“We were screaming,” he said.
Ornée is not sure what mountain he’ll climb next — either literal or metaphorical — but he’s going to “take a minute and think about it.” He’s always thought about swimming to Beaver Island, a journey that would nearly triple his swim to North Manitou.
“I love pushing myself to the extreme — but within healthy limits. I have a ‘do no harm’ rule with my body,” he said. “I love the challenge of seeing what my body is capable of. That’s what motivates me to do some of this crazy stuff. It’s my idea of fun.”