‘I feel like, for the first time in my life, I belong where I live’, says Penarth-based sea swimmer

The pandemic has caused many people to feel isolated. For au pair, Lene Hops, it helped her find community through a shared sanctuary: cold water

Woman in her twenties with short blonde hair smiles at the camera with the ocean behind her
Lene Hops at Penarth Pier, where she swims every morning

Lene Hops moved from Germany to Wales in the middle of the pandemic. She was unaware that soon she would discover a passion as a sea swimmer that would allow her to feel “high on life” every day.

Lene unintentionally helped to found the sea swimming group, Dawnstalkers, earlier this year. The Penarth-based group grew organically during the pandemic, as ordinary people appeared at the seafront for sunrise every day to dunk in the water. 

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It started when Lene realised she had lived in Penarth for six months, but had never taken the plunge. One gloomy day in February, she dragged along two friends and finally went in, wearing just a bikini. “It was choppy – super choppy, super windy, super cold. We were in for probably 30 seconds and I thought I was going to lose my toes,” she says with a beaming smile. 

“That one day I was literally so high,” the sea swimmer says. “They call it a cold water high because it literally feels like you are high on something and I was only high on life.” The euphoric sensation that Lene is still obsessed with is caused by the beta endorphin that is released to block the sensation of pain caused by the icy chill of the water. “I want to do this all the time!” she repeated once emerging from the waves. 

Later on that fateful day she bought a coffee to warm up and met another Penarthian sea swimmer, who agreed to let her join him for a dip every day before work. From there, the group only continued to grow to over 300 swimmers, with Lene regarding each new person as a friend that was part of her “gang”. 

Finding headspace 

As an au pair, Lene lived with her host family. She said that the reality of waking up and immediately being in work with three young children was a lot to handle. 

She wanted an escape in the morning so she could face work with a clear mind. “That’s why all the other people started, they needed to start their day with something that they really wanted to do.” This was especially important as she was homeschooling two of the children during lockdown. 

Why would I ever leave this place?

Originally from landlocked Western Germany, Lene worked as an interior designer before moving to Penarth. She followed her Welsh boyfriend, longing for a change in her life, and found luck when there was a gap in travel restrictions, enabling her to catch a flight. 

I’ve found so much more than what I was actually looking for

“I’ve found so much more than what I was actually looking for,” she says, gazing out to sea. “I told myself I’d go there for a year, then if it doesn’t work I can go back home. Now I’m like, ‘Why would I ever in my life leave this place?'” Finding this community during such a dark time seems to be the source of Lene’s bright energy, which is infectious to all those around her. 

The sea swimmer has plans to set up her own business in the new year, as well as finding new ways to grow the Dawnstalkers community. “I feel like, for the first time in my life, I belong where I live.” 

Lene’s top tips for sea dipping
  • Be prepared for it to be cold, but realise that’s a good thing
  • Don’t stop halfway, because the longer you stand there the harder it gets 
  • Get some water shoes to avoid cutting your feet on rocks
  • Listen to your body, if your jaw starts chattering, get out
  • Warm up afterwards by bringing lots of layers, putting a hot water bottle on your feet and getting a hot drink