Let me be honest: I hate the cold. I hate being cold, and I generally don’t look forward to Toronto’s frigid, gloomy, and way-too-long winters. And even though my first crack at surfing was in Cape Cod (which isn’t exactly sweltering), I’ll be the first to admit that I’d much rather spend my days swimming off the sunny coast of Oahu. But that’s exactly why I signed up for jack.org’s Brain Freeze Challenge: to challenge myself.
The second (and probably most important) reason for taking this on was the cause championed by jack.org: raising awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding youth mental health. After overcoming substance addiction and an eating disorder in my early twenties, mental wellness is something I care deeply about. In the end, taking on the Brain Freeze Challenge was a no-brainer for me.
Weeks prior to the event, I did some research on all things polar bear dip-related and discovered that it’s not something you can prepare for. Aside from rocking some water shoes and bringing a towel and cozy clothes for the post-plunge warm up, there’s nothing you can really do to take on water that’s barely above freezing point (cold showers in the dead of winter is something I’ve never been too keen on, either). I resorted to focusing my energy on fundraising for jack.org instead.
On the day of the plunge, I woke up with an unusual sense of peace, convinced that whatever happened would be out of my control. That feeling only got stronger once I arrived to see the smiling faces of the others plungers at Ashbridge’s Bay.
Before hitting the water, Surf the Greats’ Antonio Lennert led us through a brief mindfulness session during which we gradually stripped down to our skivvies. I found myself feeling eager with anticipation and terrified as I stood facing the calm, icy waters ahead. A serene yet powerful energy settled in amongst the group as we moved through a series of breathing exercises. Finally, Antonio counted us down from 10 as we charged into the water. While some made a mad dash for it, others – myself included – took the time to wade in.
The cold, paired with a rush of adrenaline, hit instantly. My limbs felt paralyzed and at some points, it became hard to breathe. But seeing everyone’s smiles and hearing their laughter and screams reminded me why we were all doing this in the first place. Thinking of those still struggling, just as I did before, gave me the push I needed to brave the cold. It was painful, exhilarating, and one of the most rewarding things I had done in a while. It reminded me that I was alive.
The Brain Freeze Challenge totaled to $18,186 for jack.org’s youth mental health initiatives and our efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Our plunge was broadcast on three different TV networks, and captured on both Instagram and Facebook.
And while I’m really proud of myself for going through with it, next time, I’ll grab a wetsuit. 😉
Words by community member and petite polar bear Irina Lytchak. Photographs by Sam Moffatt and Lucas Murnaghan.