By Adrienne Fawcett
Scott Carter grew up sailing in Fairfield, Ct. Since moving to Lake Forest in 2004, he has spent summers on Lake Michigan, several of which he competed in the Chicago-to-Mackinac sailing race with his buddy Tim Hender.
Lately, Scott and Tim have spent more time in the water than on it. Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott discovered the magical powers of cold-water immersion when he took his first plunge in Lake Michigan with his business coach, Rich Hill, in Chicago.
The LF Plungers jump into Lake Michigan each morning no matter the weather.
The plunge took place on Dec. 13, 2020.
Yes, the lake was cold.
No, he didn’t wear a wet suit.
And yes, Scott’s danger-warning pistons were firing at the idea of walking into the bitter cold water with nothing but swimming trunks and an encouraging friend.
Who does that?
Year-round open-water swimming is actually a thing people of various stages of life do all over the world, including in cold-weather environments. During the pandemic especially, people gravitated to open water since gyms, fitness studios and indoor pools were closed. In the Chicago area, pods of Lake Michigan swimmers formed in Lake Bluff, Highland Park, Evanston, Chicago and –- thanks to Scott and his friends — Lake Forest.
Scott was so exhilarated by the two minutes he spent in 38-degree water in December that he decided to do it again. Wanting to plunge closer to home at beautiful Forest Park Beach, Scott recruited Tim Hender, Jay Page and Chris Fischer. Scott’s 15-year-old son, George, also took the plunge. At first they were skeptical, but all were sold after just one soak. The group gave themselves the name LF Plungers (#lfplungers on Instagram) and became the nexus of a growing community of local people interested in cold-water immersion.
Approximately 60 people have plunged with the LF Plungers in the past few months, with more than 20 now showing up regularly at Forest Park Beach at dawn, no matter what the weather delivers. In the winter, they were in and out of the water in two or three minutes. They’ve been staying in at least 20 minutes now that the water temperature has climbed into the 40s and low 50s.
The Plungers often spend their soak in quiet meditation while standing shoulder deep in the water and appreciating the silence and beauty of the wide horizon to the east and the bluffs to the west. There are also mornings when they catch a more social vibe. Quiet or talkative, close bonds have formed over this morning ritual.
“The community we have created is something I cherish," Jay said. "The friendships we have fostered are meaningful, and I believe everyone would agree that that is perhaps the best part of plunging.”
Added Scott: “People see us and ask, ‘Who are all you happy people?’”
There are other ways to gather with friends that are less, shall we say, dramatic. What’s the lure of icy water?
“It’s a mind-blowing experience that’s hard to explain,” Scott said. “But I know that if I can do this in the morning, I can only imagine how good the rest of the day is going to be, and without question, it is good. I used to feel I gradually entered the day, but the cold water eliminates the fog and I enter the day with a clear head and full heart.”
Jay pointed out that cold-water immersion also has health benefits.
“I have for 10 years suffered not only from a ski accident that caused me to have three vertebrae fused in my neck, but also I have had chronic sciatica pain down my left leg for years," Jay said. "Plunging has changed my life. On the days I plunge, I have no pain at all. “I have plunged solo several mornings when I had forgotten to text the night before, simply because I am pain free when I plunge. The anti-inflammatory aspects of plunging have been a game changer for me.”
Tim agreed the plunging benefits are long lasting. “The thing I like the best is how the cold takes your breath away,” he said. “This breath-taking feeling has forced me to focus on my breathing out of the water, too, which I think has helped my circulation. The feeling when you go under the cold water at the end of the plunge is my favorite part of the cold-water experience. But when you get out of the water there is an amazing burst of elation and energy that is hard to describe, and to me is the best part of the plunge.”
Scott admitted that a year ago he would not have even considered plunging into Lake Michigan in March, let alone December.
“Back in early December I was in a spot where I was needing something emotionally and I didn’t know what it was,” Scott said. “My professional coach and friend, Rich Hill, had been doing this, talking about his experiences and how good he felt after doing this. So he invited me to join him at a beach in Rogers Park. I was nervous because the water was really cold.
“Rich helped me learn to change the narrative in my head, turning thoughts of being scared and nervous to ones of gratitude and excitement.”
Scott has been practicing the Wim Hof method for the past couple months, which is named for the Dutch elite athlete also known as The Ice Man. One of the main components of the Wim Hof method is learning to control your breathing to help manage negative thoughts.
The LF Plungers have joyfully welcomed neighbors, friends, passersby and visitors from other states and countries to plunge with them.
“I get incredible joy from watching people become comfortable after being uncomfortable,” said Scott, the original LF Plunger. “They show up the first couple times nervous and not sure what to expect. By the third time they are completely comfortable and crave starting their day in the cold water with amazing people.”
As the cold-water season segues into summer, LF Plungers wanted to turn their movement into something more impactful. They all agreed that the emotional boost is the most beneficial byproduct of plunging, and since May is Mental Health Awareness month, the group decided to host a Paws for Patrick PLUNGE at 8 a.m. Monday, May 31 at North Forest Park Beach in Lake Forest.
All are invited to take the plunge with the LF Plungers!