Doing Hard Things Together

0:00 Cassie Fenton, a Rye mother of four, used to stand by the pool on hot summer days while her kids begged her to get […]

Published January 25, 2024 2:37 PM
4 min read

0:00

Cassie Fenton, a Rye mother of four, used to stand by the pool on hot summer days while her kids begged her to get in. So, when she told her family she planned to plunge into the chilly waters of Long Island Sound on a crisp fall day, “They laughed hysterically and agreed ‘Mom could never do that.’” 

“But I did,” she said. 

Her motivation was a newfound perspective on life (her son, Hamish, was diagnosed with cancer in September) and an incredible group of women “who held my hands on the coldest, rainiest, windiest, most miserable of days as we entered the ocean and repeated the words ‘We can do hard things.’”

“We can do hard things” is the mantra of a growing group of local (mostly) moms who meet regularly to plunge. They jokingly refer to themselves as “The Bad Sisters,” after the Apple TV+ show that features The Forty Foot, a popular swimming spot in South Dublin. While many in the group cite the physical benefits of cold-water therapy, most reference as its greatest draw the mental lift and the sense of community the group fosters. 

A Bad Sisters plunge is a methodical, meditative, and efficient affair. Participants, often holding hands, quietly enter the water where they remain from two to six minutes before silently emerging. 

“It puts you in a state of complete mindfulness,” said Fenton. “Your brain just focuses on breathing and the sea. Few words are spoken yet I think we all feel we are going through something, and we are there to support each other. I realized quickly it’s exactly what I needed.”

“It gives me a profound sense of peace,” said Cliona Cronin, a mother of two and the group’s original, some might say baddest, sister. “But what has been most remarkable is the women of all ages who have come together as a result.” 

As Cronin, a nurse, knows, life offers plenty of challenges, but sometimes presents the opportunity to experience a hard thing of our own choosing – and a circle of friends to see us through it. In 2022, her husband, Norbert, died in a cycling accident. Six months later, she hosted two friends from her native Ireland who came bearing gifts of plunging booties and a robe.

Maybe it was the booties, the company of old friends, or the thought of pushing a weary body — and spirit — to its limit, but Cronin plunged into the sea and emerged unscathed and invigorated. She was hooked. 

She recruited a few friends to join her, and today readily welcomes all into the fold. The Bad Sisters group now boasts 50 members and growing.

“Every time I plunge, I feel as if it’s a reset,” she said. 

It just might be. Studies show cold-water plunging can improve circulation, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, and release endorphins, which in turn can improve mood. Cold water bathing and “sea swimming” have long been a popular activity in Ireland and the UK, but the phenomenon’s popularity grew immensely during the pandemic as it offered a safe and healthy means of communal gathering. 

Sarah Palmer, who plunged with The Bad Sisters for the first time this month, was most attracted to the communal support. “It was appealing to do something so challenging with a group of women, most of whom I don’t know, in a situation where you have to be real.”  

Palmer, a massage therapist and mother of two, said while the water was indeed “freezing,” she relied on “the guidance of the more experienced plungers” who had prepped her with breathing techniques and advice for how to best warm up afterwards.

Many in the group employ the Win Hof technique to regulate their body and mind while in the water. Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete, devised a technique to control the autonomic nervous system, which oversees breathing, digestion, and temperature regulation. The routine consists of specific breathing exercises, frequent cold exposure and meditation.

On top of that is the sense of accomplishment it elicits. “It feels amazing because you’ve achieved something that’s hard,” said Liz Bradley, who has joined her close friend Cronin in plunges throughout New England.

On a recent afternoon, as waves lapped the snow-covered shore, five women waded waist deep into the Sound. Holding hands, they formed a tight circle, plunged to their shoulders, and then stood in silence. A passerby might have thought the scene a sacred ceremony. 

As the women raised a purple feathered boa in support of Fenton and her son Hamish who was undergoing surgery that day, it felt as though maybe it was. 

The Bad Sisters (L. to R): Corey Radtke, Jeanine Scott, Susan Kloepfer, Cliona Cronin, Tracey Shaw, Sarah Palmer, and Andi Hessekiel.

– Photos by Alison Rodilosso

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