Hundreds of people dive into the lake every week from Chicago’s Montrose Harbor

As the sun rises over the Lake Michigan horizon, there is a chill in the early fall air. Laughter echoes and bounces off the concrete of Montrose Harbor as hundreds gather.

The choppy waters may seem unappealing, but the group doesn’t seem to care. They muster up the courage to jump into Lake Michigan. It only takes a few minutes as soon people launch themselves into the air, armed with floats and pool noodles. They dive into the lake.

For the past two summers, hundreds of people have witnessed the sunrise at Montrose Harbor every Friday morning. Called the Friday Morning Swim Club, they are there to share a dip in the water, 20 gallons of coffee and fellowship.

There is only one rule: every Friday you have to meet a new person.

“It’s all about literally putting your phone down and meeting 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 many felt lost during isolation: human connection. From increased numbers in running clubs to group therapy screaming sessions, Friday morning’s lake jumps have been no different in restoring 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 so many people.

“It grew just as fast last year without it, so it speaks more of word of mouth and how many people missed this for 2020 to 2021, and now they have an outlet or somewhere they can count on once a week, to seeing certain people and just catching up,” he said.

The last jump of the season is Friday, but they will resume the jumps next summer, organizers said. The swim club will also hold events throughout the year, which will be announced on their social media.

Nicole Bertolozzi, 25, moved from Florida to Chicago three years ago in the midst of the pandemic. She took her first dip in June with a group of people she’d gone to the gym with and hasn’t looked back. She has attended every group jump this summer.

“As the weeks (have) gone by, I think I’ve probably met at least 50 people here. So now it’s like we go and it’s our very little family. So it’s fun. I really like it,” said Bertolozzi. “So this was kind of a fun, perfect way, as COVID subsides, to meet people and get to know people.”

While the swim in the lake is mostly enjoyed by those in their late twenties and thirties, the swim club is open to all. On a recent Friday, when a young girl gathered the courage to jump, hundreds of people cheered her on.

Swimmers jump into Lake Michigan as part of the Friday Morning Swim Club in Chicago's Montrose Harbor.  Hundreds of people gather on Friday and jump in together.

Experts say that creating a sense of community is important for mental health, and being in a lake is also good for physical health.

“What I love about this is that it’s so playful. The experience is an experience of being rather than an experience of doing or achieving,” said Alexandra Solomon, a professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy and host of the podcast “Reimagining Love.” “And so I can imagine that’s also the attraction of that, that there’s no purpose. The goal is just togetherness.”

The swim club’s origins date 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., at her coffee shop that summer. They soon bonded over music and became friends.

In the early summer of 2021, Novotny decided to invite Glatt and three other friends to jump into the lake every Thursday evening to catch up and get together in the midst of the pandemic.

“People didn’t really do anything in those days. But I had some friends who were interested in just jumping in the water,” said Novotny, 34. “So after doing that a few times, I decided it would be pretty cool to maybe do this on a weekly basis.”

In June 2021, Friday Morning Swim Club was born, inspired by both Glatt’s Friday morning post-bike ride dips and Novotny’s Thursday night jumps.

Now, every Friday, hundreds of people gather to jump into the lake next to them. According to Glatt, about 600 to 800 people are regularly jumping.

“We never thought we’d be here,” Novotny said.

Before jumping in, Eugeni Nikolov explores the waves at Friday Morning Swim Club in Montrose Harbor on September 23, 2022.

The group’s demographics may skew toward younger generations, Solomon said, as people in their 20s and 30s long for ways to get together that don’t focus on alcohol and the relationship culture, and because the pandemic has led people to seek are looking for new ways to be together. The swim club’s beginnings can even be traced back to pandemic gatherings.

“I think we’ve all experienced social atrophy in recent years,” she said. “And because there’s an awareness that our social skills aren’t 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 afraid to be together. Being together creates a lot of sensory overload for many of us. And what better way to manage sensory overload than just being in the water together? Lake Michigan is a profound regulator of the nervous system.”

After the jumps, people can enjoy free cold brew provided by Novotny’s coffee shop. However, they must bring their own mugs. Every Friday there is a contest where participants vote for the most creative mug to win ‘Mug of the Week’. And people take it seriously.

“Everyone gets so excited to bring their mugs, which is great,” Novotny said. “We actually had this one woman planning — we didn’t get it until week three or four, but every week she brought a smaller mug, which is wild.”

One of their regular jumpers even goes to thrift stores to find coffee mugs for the swim club, Glatt said.

“The last time I saw him, he said, ‘We’re now at the level where my family is mailing me mugs.’ He says, ‘This one belongs to my mother-in-law,’ Glatt added.

Participants also take seriously a float race that 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 sponsored by Goose Island Brewery.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s completely ridiculous,” Glatt said with a chuckle. “It’s ridiculous that we got 30-40 32-year-olds in the water at 7:00 on Friday in these ridiculous floats racing against each other because it’s fun to do… It’s just joy in 30-year-olds.”

“We are a very good team in many ways,” Glatt added. “But I think we’re really good at understanding what stupid ideas are the right amount of stupid.”

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“I prefer the word ‘weird,'” laughed Novotny.

Lauren Anderson, left, and Gloria Janek, center, enjoy the high waves and skyline as they float in Lake Michigan as part of the Friday Morning Swim Club in Montrose Harbor.

“I’m a big believer, if you have a really weird idea that you believe in and you make it happen, good things will come out of it,” Glatt said.

He said the Friday rallies have become more than just a crazy way to connect and let off steam.

“We understand, relatively, this is a small thing,” Glatt said.

“Absolutely,” Novotny intervened.

“But when you get messages or people tell you in person how this thing has helped them so much in the last two months, three months because they’re either going through a breakup or their mental health is in a terrible place, and this has been like that.” A positive influence on,’ said Glatt, ‘that’s really eye-opening. I don’t care how small this thing is. It’s huge for them.”

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