Members of the new Belle Isle Swim Club meet on the morning of August 18, 2023, for coffee and a dip in the Detroit River. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

A growing number of Detroiters are waking up bright and early on Friday mornings and heading to the Belle Isle beach to swim, float, and drink coffee with community members – even if it is 55 degrees. 

Approximately 40 people gathered Friday for the new Belle Isle Swim Club, an informal group that held its first event in mid-July and has quickly become a gathering space for people to swim together Friday mornings. The club makes Detroit the latest city to introduce the popular Friday morning event that is growing in popularity across the country. The community swim club meetup started in Chicago two years ago with just eight people, but has since grown to thousands of people each week, attracting so many swimmers that it has even prompted safety concerns.

Members of the Belle Isle Swim Club gather for coffee, conversation and a trip into the water on August 18, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Founder of the Belle Isle Swim Club, Lauren Boyle, has always loved the water and would often spend mornings on the island by herself. When she saw other cities doing a Friday morning swim club she was inspired to start one in Detroit. 

“It was something that I wanted to share with other people. Detroit has a special kind of community,” said Boyle, adding that she thought Belle Isle would be a great gathering space. 

By the third week of Detroit’s swim club there were 70 people in attendance as word spread via Instagram. 

“We want it [swim club] to be a place that’s accessible and inclusive. We want it to be a really low barrier to entry, so sort of low stakes but high reward,” she said. 

To that end, it’s relatively unstructured: anyone who wants to is free to join up Friday mornings before 9 a.m. to swim or hang out and drink free coffee, no sign up or fees are required. The crowd was majority white people though. Boyle said they are now thinking about how to get more people of color at the event after it just organically grew.

“I just think it’s a great way to start the Friday,” said Justin Panhans, who biked to Belle Isle Friday morning for the club.

Justin Panhans said he frequently bikes Belle Isle and was immediately game for the swim club once he heard about it from founders. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Panhans said he usually bikes at Belle Isle, but not in the morning, until the Belle Isle Swim Club was presented to him by the founding committee. He was immediately game for it. 

“I’ll wake up early, ride a few laps around Belle Isle, then I come over here and there’s coffee and friends,” he said. “It’s cool to be able to hang out with people in the morning before work.”

Despite temperatures in the mid 50s, Midtown resident Keiera Lacombe took a dip in the water Friday for about 15 minutes. 

“Usually we at least get in for a while,” Lacombe told BridgeDetroit. “You’re early, you’re out here, it’s so peaceful. It just sets you up for such a good day and it’s a good way to build friendships and community and meet new people.”

Belle Isle Swim Club members Ellen Duff and Diandra Gourlay take a break on the Belle isle Beach on August 18, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

To warm up, Lacombe and others drank free coffee provided by James Oliver Coffee in Corktown. Initially, Belle Isle Swim Club organizers were paying for coffee and handing it out for  free to swimmers, but then the coffee roaster started donating it. 

“I just loved the idea,” James Oliver co-owner Miranda Clark said about the swim club. Clark lives in Detroit and said she feels like swimming at Belle Isle is the essence of summer.  

“Each week they were getting more coffee and by the time we did cambros I just donated them,” she said. A cambro is a large coffee dispenser, and each week James Oliver donates two which is enough for 100 people. 

When asked if James Oliver will keep donating coffee if the Detroit club grows to be as big as Chicago’s, Clark said she had no idea how big the one in Chicago was.

“I didn’t know that was possible,” she told BridgeDetroit, laughing. “We’re committed for this season, if it grows to that place then we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. That would be an exciting challenge to have,” she added. 

James Oliver Coffee Co. provides free coffee every Friday morning to those who show up for the Belle Isle Swim Club. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Steph Joseph, project manager for the swim club, said they’re not measuring success by the amount of people that come. “As long as people walk away and start their day in a positive, peaceful manner, we take that as a win.”

Brooke Tiller, social media coordinator for the club, said organizers plan to keep meeting until mid-October and might plan a polar plunge in the winter. 

“We want to have some fall, cozy mornings and things like that,” she said, “just keep finding a reason to show up and have a good Friday morning.” 

For those interested in joining on Fridays, check out the group’s Instagram page.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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