How I Beat Pandemic Stress By Jumping Into an Icy Lake
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Health & Fitness

Break Ice. Jump Into Frozen Lake. Repeat

How I regained my sanity by doing something totally nuts

Shirtless man jumping into body of water
Derick Smith

It was a summer morning back in 2020. I looked out over Lake Michigan, just a few miles from my home in Chicago, and wondered how everything had gone so terribly wrong.

I knew part of the reason, of course. COVID had f--ked everything up. I make my living selling rock T-shirts at festivals, but thanks to the pandemic, that business was gone. I was just keeping the lights on by driving a bus. I missed my friends; I missed the music; I missed the things that made me feel connected to the world.

I was a 54-year-old guy sleepwalking through his life.

My wife, Margaret, knew something was wrong. One morning, when I was in an especially foul mood, she kicked me out. “Bike down to the lake,” she told me. “Go clear your head.”

I took her advice. I stood on the harbor’s edge, watching the city skyline, wishing I knew what to do to shake myself out of this torpor.

And then I jumped. 

The water was cold — a bracing 48 degrees — and it felt like an electric current bursting through my body. I climbed out feeling renewed, focused and weirdly optimistic.

It felt so good, I did it again the next day. And then the next, and the next.

I didn’t set out to jump into the lake every day for a year — it just sort of happened. When winter came and the lake froze over, I’d bring a hammer and shovel to hack a hole big enough to dive into. When that didn’t work, I brought a pickax and bowling ball attached to a chain.

Word spread and people started coming to watch me. Local musicians came to serenade me. On my 365th consecutive jump, last June, a crowd of hundreds showed up. Jeff Tweedy played. There was global media coverage. It felt like the completion of something. I’d crossed a finish line.

But the next day, I went back to the lake and jumped again. And again the next day. And again.

I’m still going strong. There are no more crowds or journalists. It’s just me and a shovel, digging another hole in the ice so I can feel that endorphin rush of cold water again. 

I don’t know if my daily swims have made me less depressed. But they definitely have made me feel less helpless. There’s not much in this world you can control anymore. The news is terrifying. Everybody in the world is fighting on social media. The pandemic starts to recede, only to come roaring back. There’s no certainty about anything.

Except the water. I jump in, and for a brief, beautiful moment I escape the chaos. It all disappears.

My life isn’t perfect. I’m still driving a bus all day, and the money is tight, and I miss going to shows and being in crowded clubs with friends. But I’ve stopped worrying about the things I can’t control.

Because I can control this. When it’s just me and a freezing lake, nobody can tell me “No.” Nobody can say, “Go home, it’s not safe.” Damn straight it’s not safe. I’ve had my back ripped up with ice shards. But I’m still here.

And I’ll be back tomorrow — with a bowling ball under one arm and a shovel to make a fresh hole. When the rest of the world says, “We’re closed,” sometimes you have to dig your own way to freedom.

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