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“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario

Hundreds of people gathered at Woodbine Beach to swim in 50-kilometre winds

By Alex Cyr| Photography by Joshua Best
“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Thrill-seekers of all ages running into the water at Woodbine Beach

More than 300 Torontonians braved heavy winds, relentless rain, and frigid waters at Woodbine Beach on Saturday to take part in Brainfreeze, an annual cold-water plunge and fundraiser for youth mental health. Co-organized by the Toronto surf shop Surf the Greats and the mental health charity Jack.org, the event was one of five polar bear dips held across the country to mark Brainfreeze’s five-year anniversary. Between the rain and gusts of 50-kilometre winds, we asked veteran and rookie dippers why they took the plunge.

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Jeff, a Hydro Ontario worker, and Melissa, a registered massage therapist

Melissa: “I’ve never done a dip like this, and I’m terrified. But today is my birthday, and youth mental health means a lot to me, so I thought: What better way to start a new year than to step outside my comfort zone? I’ve tried to prepare by practicing the Wim Hof method—a popular cold immersion and breathing technique—but it may all go out the window once I touch the water. I like to challenge myself: I’ve run a marathon to fundraise for colon cancer, and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Jeff: “I went halfway up that mountain to support Melissa, and today I drove all the way from Ingersoll to cheer her on. But there is absolutely no chance I’m following her into the lake.”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Thomas, facilitator at the cold-exposure wellness brand Unbounded

“I started doing cold-water dips three years ago, when my friend Nick went viral for playing chess in an ice hole. I thought it was dope, so I started going to the beach near my place in Mimico and training. The first six weeks, I couldn’t breathe in the water—it was no joke. Then I learned about controlling my breath and slowly improved.”

“Soon, I realized that the dips were terrific for my mental health, especially since we were in lockdown and I needed a way to challenge myself and be outside. Doing something uncomfortable with other people builds resilience and connection. Today, I’m leading an extended dip for people who want to stay in the water for several minutes. My advice for newcomers: keep your hands above water and find someone to help guide you.”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Jenn, actor

“I joined a polar dip group for women in June, shortly after moving back to Toronto from Vancouver, because I wanted to meet people. It was eight degrees for my first dip, and I found it so cold, but I kept going back. What I thought might only be a summer activity continued through the fall and now into winter. Every time the temperature drops, you meet a new edge, and it’s exhilarating when you push past it.

“Earlier this week, we went in the water at 6:30 a.m. when it was minus 10 degrees. I’m at the point where I will break through ice to immerse myself in freezing water. I never thought I’d do something like this, and it’s giving me confidence. You have to surrender to the elements and stay strong in the face of difficulty. It’s a metaphor for life.”

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“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Eric, founder of Jack.org

“My wife and I tragically lost our son Jack to suicide in 2010. It motivated us to make a difference for young people who are struggling, and we felt we could have the greatest impact by fostering youth engagement, leadership and mental health. We put on events like this to raise awareness, and we are so grateful for this community that does hard things for an important cause. One day, we want to set the Guinness World Record for the biggest number of polar dippers at once. Through it all, I’ve gotten better at the plunges myself. It’s funny—I’m not even cold right now!”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
A group of friends prepare to take the plunge
“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Sam and Sam, couple

Sam (left): We started doing these cold-water dips a year ago. It seemed like they were getting popular, so I tried it first out of curiosity. It was exhilarating, and it was easy to convince him to join in. Soon, we had a cold tub in our backyard. I have to dry off now. I’m a realtor, and I have a showing across town very soon. My clients know where I am—they know about my crazy hobby.”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Isi, media and communications at Surf the Greats

“I never knew about this cold-water community. It’s become such a huge trend in recent years that I started to feel like I was missing out, so here I am for my first dip. Collingwood also held a plunge today, and it was sunny there, while we are stuck with this mess. That’s fine; it adds to the experience.”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Louise, registered nurse

“I’ve suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety, so this cause is important to me. This was my first polar dip. Sure, my feet and toes are so cold they feel like they are getting stabbed nonstop, but it’s not so bad. I’ll come back next year. My daughter will be five by then, and I might take her with me.”

“My feet and toes are so cold they feel like they’re getting stabbed”: These Torontonians took a freezing December dip in Lake Ontario
Friends hold hands as they head into the water

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