February 9, 2024

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Cold water, warm heart: ‘plunge’ can make you feel alive, closer to God

Christina CapecchiOne after another, influencers are taking the plunge. The cold-water plunge.

I couldn’t help but follow along when Elizabeth Ries, a lovable TV personality from Minneapolis, joined the trend recently, heading to Duluth, Minn., to dip into Lake Superior. It was zero degrees, and the mother of three was multi-tasking: filming for TV while sharing the experience on Instagram stories.

“This is the true Duluth experience,” says Elizabeth, donning a knit cap and plaid jacket, her dimples flashing. “Let’s do this!”

Next you see Elizabeth in her black-and-white gingham swimsuit, perched in a sauna floating over Lake Superior. Then she climbs down a ladder and immerses in the hole in the ice, dunking her head underwater. She pops back up, yelps and high fives the man across from her.

“This was the best!” she concludes, back in her jacket and hat. “The best! I can’t even stand it.”

The Nordic tradition sweeping the country is called “vinterbadning” by the Danish, which means “winter bathing.” The Vikings, renowned for their resilience, often followed a sauna session by a plunge into icy waters to boost their “livskraft,” or life force. Now suburban moms are following suit.

Brother Matt Wooters, 36, vocations promoter for the Jesuits’ Midwest province, understands their motivation. He’s turned cold-water swimming into a sunrise ritual, logging nearly 30 different bodies of water in 2023. When he relocated to Detroit last summer, he scouted out a new swim spot before unpacking. He landed on Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River, and enjoyed a long run of daily swims until the recent subzero snap forced him to pause.

“If it’s in the low 20s, I’ll still go,” he said.

On the coldest days, he swims about 3 minutes, steadily increasing that length as the weather warms.

“I go in really slow—ankles, knees, hips, chest, then all the way up,” he said. “Your first response is to clench and hyperventilate. But you can re-set your nervous system. Then you feel bliss. Your brain is flooded with happy chemicals. It happens every time.”

He’s not surprised so many Americans—numbed by non-stop exposure to screens—are taking the plunge. “There’s something to having a thrill. And there’s a certain playfulness to it. We’re going swimming—we’re not working on a spreadsheet. We’re doing cannon balls!”

His daily swim keeps him attuned to the shifting of seasons, which feels “liturgical.” It reminds him of how monks adjust the time of their morning and evening prayer to the daylight. “We’re connected to water and air and seasons, even though we’re quite air-conditioned and heated and comfortable these days.”

Though high-profile influencers may not articulate it, there’s a spiritual underpinning to a cold-water plunge.

“There’s a seeking,” Brother Matt said. “And there’s a finding. They’ve had an experience with something wonderful and wild and mysterious, and they go back to it. Almost always, we’re trying to fill a God-shaped hole in our heart. We crave to live with God forever. I’m hungry for that, I want more of that.”

The joy of cold-water immersion is a guidepost, he believes, calling to mind a statement from St. Ignatius: that which makes you feel most alive, that’s where God is.

“There’s an alignment with our God-given gifts and talents, and also a sense of God’s closeness,” Brother Matt said. “Consolation fills us with an increase of faith, hope and love. St. Ignatius tells us to go back to those moments.”

He finds them, invariably, while swimming.

“It’s baptismal,” he said. “How you go into the baptismal font is different from how you leave.

Not only are you physically wet, but you’re drenched in grace. I feel the same. And whatever worries or fears you had going into it are gone when you’re done.”

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.)

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