As the sun rises over the horizon of Lake Michigan, there’s a chill in the early autumn air. Laughter echoes and reverberates on the concrete of Montrose Harbor as hundreds gather.
The choppy water may appear uninviting, but the group doesn’t seem to care. They’re gathering courage to jump into the lake. It only takes a few minutes and people are soon launching themselves in the air, armed with floats and pool noodles. They plunge into the lake.
Every Friday morning for the last two summers, hundreds of people have experienced the sunrise jump at Montrose Harbor. Called the Friday Morning Swim Club, they are there to share a dip in the water, 20 gallons of coffee and fellowship.
There’s only one rule: Every Friday, you have to meet one new person.
“It’s all about literally putting your phone down and meeting either old friends, new friends, whatever — just connecting with people. That’s it‚” one of the founders, Andrew Glatt, 31, told the Tribune.
Born out of the pandemic, the swim club represents something that many felt they lost during isolation: human connection. From increased numbers in running clubs, to group therapy scream sessions, the Friday morning lake jumps have been no different in rebuilding human connection. Participants have come to Montrose Harbor from all over the country and the world including Oregon, Maryland, Canada and New Zealand.
With 18,000 followers on Instagram, Glatt said the club hasn’t always needed the platform to attract people.
“It grew just as fast last year without it, so it speaks more to like word-of-mouth and how much people missed this for 2020 to 2021, and now they have an outlet or somewhere they can count on once a week, going to see certain people and just catching up,” he said.
The last jump of the season is Friday, but they will resume jumps next summer, organizers said. The swim club will also hold events throughout the year, which will be advertised on their social media.
Nicole Bertolozzi, 25, moved to Chicago from Florida three years ago in the middle of the pandemic. She took her first plunge in June with a group of people she’d gone to the gym with and hasn’t looked back. She’s attended every group jump this summer.
“As the weeks (have) gone on, I think I’ve met probably, at least 50 people here. So now it’s like, we go and it’s our whole little family. So it’s fun. I really like it,” Bertolozzi said. “So this was kind of a nice, perfect way, as COVID subsides, to start meeting people and get to know people.”
Though the plunges into the lake are mostly enjoyed by people in their late 20s and 30s, swim club is open to anyone. On a recent Friday, as a young girl built up courage to jump, hundreds cheered her on.
Experts say that creating a sense of community is important for mental health, and that being in a lake is also good for physical health.
“What I love about this is, it’s so playful. The experience is an experience of being rather than an experience of doing or accomplishing,” said Alexandra Solomon, a professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy and host of the “Reimagining Love” podcast. “And so I imagine that’s also the appeal of that, is that there’s no goal. The goal is just togetherness.”
The origins of the swim club can be traced back to 2019 when Glatt, a photographer, was training for the Chicago Triathlon. Glatt and some friends made it a habit to jump in the lake after Friday morning bike rides. He met Nicole Novotny, owner of Printer’s Row Coffee Co., in her coffee shop that summer. They bonded over music and became friends.
In the early summer of 2021, Novotny decided to invite Glatt and three other friends to jump in the lake every Thursday evening to catch up and check in on each other in the middle of the pandemic.
“People weren’t really doing anything during that time. But I had a couple of friends that were interested in just going to jump in the water,” Novotny, 34, said. “So after a couple times of doing that, I decided it’d be kind of cool to commit to doing this maybe weekly.”
In June 2021, Friday Morning Swim Club was born, inspired by both Glatt’s Friday morning post-bike ride dips and Novotny’s Thursday evening jumps.
Now, hundreds gather every Friday to jump in the lake alongside them. Regularly, there are about 600 to 800 people who jump, according to Glatt.
“We never thought we’d be here,” Novotny said.
The group’s demographic might skew toward younger generations, Solomon said, because people in their 20s and 30s are craving ways to gather that are not centered around alcohol and hookup culture, and because the pandemic has led people to seek new ways of being together.
“I think we all have experienced social atrophy over the last couple of years,” she said. “And because there’s an awareness that our social skills are not where they used to be, I think there’s a kind of collective social anxiety and an ambivalence: We want to be together, but we’re anxious about being together. Being together creates a lot of sensory overload for a lot of us. And so what better way to manage sensory overload than to just be together in the water? Lake Michigan is a profound nervous system regulator.”
After the jumps, people enjoy free cold brew supplied by Novotny’s coffee shop. They have to bring their own mugs, however. There’s a contest every Friday where participants vote for “Mug of the Week.” And people take it seriously.
“Everyone gets so excited about bringing their mugs, which is great,” Novotny said. “We actually had this one woman plan out — we didn’t catch on until like week three or four, but every week she brought a smaller mug, which is wild.”
One of their regular jumpers even goes into thrift shops to find coffee mugs for swim club, Glatt said.
“The last time I saw him, he said ‘We are now at the level where my family is mailing me mugs.’ He’s like, ‘This one’s from my mother-in-law,’ ” Glatt added.
Participants also take seriously a float race that the organizers held in July, dubbed the “Great Lake Race.” The prize for winning the race was four three-day passes to Pitchfork Music Festival, tickets which were sponsored by Goose Island Brewery.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s completely ridiculous,” Glatt said, chuckling. “It’s ridiculous that we got 30 to 40 32-year-olds in the water at 7 a.m. on Friday in these ridiculous floats racing each other because it’s a fun thing to do. … It’s just joy in 30-year-olds.”
“We’re a really good team in a lot of ways,” Glatt added. “But I think what we’re really good at is understanding which stupid ideas are the right amount of stupid.”
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“I prefer the word ‘weird,’ ” Novotny laughed.
“I’m a big believer, if you have a really weird idea that you believe in and you make it happen, that good things will come from that,” Glatt said.
He said the Friday meetups have become more than just a goofy way to connect and let off steam.
“We understand, relatively, this is a small thing,” Glatt said.
“Totally,” Novotny interjected.
“But when you get messages or people tell you in person how this thing has helped them so much for the last two months, three months because they’re going through either a breakup or their mental health is in a terrible spot, and this has had such a positive impact on that,” Glatt said, “that’s really sort of eye-opening. I don’t care how small this thing is. To them, it’s huge.”