When Connor Mulholland dives into the frigid Atlantic Ocean at the end of each day, he takes a deep breath, calms his mind, and remembers the many friends that he’s lost to addiction over the years.
“I’m thinking about what they went through, and what was going through their minds,” he said. “It’s cleansing in more ways than one, and this whole thing has really helped with my grieving process.”
But while sitting in the numbing water, he also keeps his focus on something else: all the people struggling with drug and alcohol use who he may still be able to help.
For 23 days and counting, Mulholland has been running down the beach in Salisbury and on Plum Island in nothing but a bathing suit before plunging into the cold, choppy sea. The daring swims are part of a month-long challenge to raise money for Chucky’s Fight, a nonprofit that helps people battling addiction and educates students about the risks of substance use.
Even as a seasoned surfer who hits the waves in a wetsuit come winter, the 26-year-old Newburyport resident admits that it’s incredibly cold. And there are days — like on the evening of the Super Bowl, when snow was falling and wind whipped across the open beach — that he just doesn’t want to follow through.
But he has persevered and is holding true to his 28-day pledge, knowing that the brief, bone-chilling excursions are for the greater good.
Mulholland has lost about eight friends to the opioid epidemic since he was a teenager, he said. In some cases, his friends became addicted to prescription drugs after suffering sports-related injuries. From there, their troubles deepened.
He had long wanted to do something to honor and remember them, and so he launched his project this year.
The idea to jump into the cold, crashing waves came from the founder of the organization he is raising money for, Charles Rosa.
“I knew about Chucky Rosa; he’s just a local legend. He had this nonprofit, and he was just unparalleled in what he’s been able to achieve and what he was doing, and the difference he was making,” said Mulholland, a recovering alcoholic. “It was an easy decision for me to reach out to him.”
Rosa, a New Hampshire resident, started Chucky’s Fight after losing his two sons, Vincent and Domenic, to accidental drug overdoses.
After his children died, Rosa scattered their ashes in the ocean, under the Hampton River Bridge between Hampton and Seabrook, N.H. To honor their memory, Rosa has been taking early morning swims in the sea — rain, sleet, or snow — every day for about 15 years.
“I just bless myself and I ask my boys, Dom and Vincent, to give me the strength to do the right thing today,” he said. “I hold my breath for awhile and float for a few minutes and I feel like it takes all of the negative energy and puts it out into the ocean.”
Rosa, who is in recovery, has made it the mission of Chucky’s Fight to share his experience, strength, and hope with others through speaking engagements and educational programs about preventing substance abuse. He helps people struggling with addiction find treatment they might not have been able to access or afford on their own.
Rosa has jumped into the water with Mulholland on a few occasions, including his inaugural dip at the start of the month. Fund-raisers like Mulholland’s are what sustain his program, he said.
“He’s making a sacrifice to help others,” Rosa said, “and I give him a lot of credit for that.”
For his part, Mulholland thought that if Rosa “can jump in the water 365 days a year without a suit, I can do it for him” for 28 days.
At the start of the fund-raiser, Mulholland, who builds and repairs boats, would run in and out of the water quickly. But he has slowed the process down and now submerges himself for up to 13 seconds.
“It’s invigorating, and it does turn your day around,” he said. “It’s hard to be negative when you’re doing it”
With the help of friends, Mulholland has been recording his daily jumps into the ocean and posting them on Facebook, where he tags the business — or businesses — that have sponsored him by donating money for that day’s swim. People have also been making donations on Mulholland’s personal Facebook page or through the Chucky’s Fight website.
Mulholland had originally hoped to raise around $6,000 for Rosa’s organization. But after his story gained attention and appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, he surpassed that goal by mid-Feburary. His new target is $10,000, and he’s optimistic.
Mulholland has just a few days left before the grand finale on Sunday. Then, next month, he’s going on a surfing trip to Costa Rica, where he will continue to post daily dives into the ocean for his cause.
The tone and environment will be drastically different — warm and inviting, the feel of a vacation. But the mission will remain the same.
“Just trying to end the stigma about addiction, and do my part to help as many people as I can,” Mulholland said.