Football star's water challenge for local charity

With early February bringing with it high winds and forecasts of snow, the idea of getting into open water wouldn’t cross the minds of the majority of people. Sea temperatures are at their coldest in February, averaging at 8.8°C, and lake water is normally a few temperatures colder.

However, one Westmeath footballer and dozens of others across the country are taking on the physical and psychological challenge of submerging themselves in open water, adding a minute to the clock for every day they take part, amounting to a total of six hours and 46 minutes across the month of February.

Speaking not too long after the eleventh day of the challenge, Athlone man Ray Connellan explains how he got involved with what is being called ‘Freezbrury’.

“I first heard about it two years ago and I was going to do it but I moved back over to Australia, and there wasn’t much point in doing it in the Australian summer. I saw that it was happening again last year through Damien Browne. He used to play for Connacht and he’s actually preparing to climb Everest at the moment. He was posting about it on his story and looking for new ways to push himself. I just said I’d give it a try, so myself and my brother John did it last year. It was tough but we got through it," said Ray.

“This year I wasn’t really sure if I’d do it again, but I kind of got talked into it so here I am again doing it for the rest of the month.”

Snow and ice warnings are on the news almost every day, and Ray says he is “always looking at what the weather is going to be like for the next few days.”

“All the warnings about snow and ice and wind just means that you really need to boost and hype yourself up a little bit. That’s probably the toughest part of it, getting into the water. The half an hour before is tough.

“Today, for example, I was pretty cosy in bed and then you need to get out of bed and make yourself really uncomfortable for the next eleven minutes, which the time was today. It’s a psychological challenge in that sense, but I think that’s what makes it so good and why people donate. They see that it’s psychologically tough and physically demanding. That resonates with people and they buy into it. With the amount of people doing it this year I’d say the total amount raised will be a huge figure.”

Participants are fundraising for three charities, Pieta House, the Samaritans and Shine A Light Suicide and Mental Health Awareness Group, with Ray choosing to donate to Pieta House.

Ray has openly spoken about his mental health in the past and candidly says that “it is something that has affected pretty much everyone in my family at one point or another.”

“I think a lot of people can relate to that because either themselves or someone they know has had struggles.

“One side of me wanted me to do it for that, to get people speaking about it more so that it’s not as taboo as it was before.”

While doing Freezbrury last year, Ray went into Pieta House in Athlone and was shown around.

“It’s nice to be able to help a local charity that means a lot to you. I met with Ger Tiernan and he showed me the facilities that they have there. I met some of the counsellors and psychologists working there too, and I think that hit home with me a lot more and I saw how important of a charity it is.

“With the way the past year has gone, fundraisers are hard come by and you can’t organise Darkness Into Light, for example, on the scale that you would like. For an organisation that requires so much public donations, it’s pretty important to help them out at a time when they can’t really organise the fundraisers to the level that they would like to themselves.”

The challenge has also given Ray something to do each day.

“2020 was a bit of write-off, and in terms of sport in 2021 the announcement that Gaelic isn’t going to be back until at least Easter is a bit of a blow too. For me personally, it’s important to have other things to keep you accountable and to give you something to do during the day," said the Athlone and Westmeath footballer.

“It can be easy to get into a rut of being comfortable and not pushing yourself, but as a sportsperson you’re normally training quite hard and you have matches that you know are going to be physically demanding.”

Looking to the rest of the month, Ray is getting into the water at Coosan Point after a few days taking part at Seapoint in Dublin while he was there for work.

“There’s a lot of people that say I’m mad, but it’s something that loads of people do. I have friends that did it over Christmas and throughout January because it’s actually quite good for you to immerse yourself in cold water. There are so many positive side-effects from it.

“There’s a bit of worry as the days go by and the times gets longer that you might get sick, but you can’t overthink that. My parents have been down a few times, and some friends have come down with a hot chocolate or something for when I get out of the water which is nice. My girlfriend has come down and jumped in with me a few times as well, with no one more surprised than herself that she did it!

“It’s not an easy thing to do but everybody has been massively supportive which is great.”

Those wishing to donate to Ray’s Freezbrury can find the donation link on Instagram @connellanray and Twitter @ConnellanRay