I’ve long wondered if I’m the kind of person who’s just like “YOLO!” Even though I privately agonize over lots of decisions I have to make and enjoy canceling plans to read books in my spare time, the phrase is versatile enough that it might well apply to me, too. I may be in my head a lot, but I always just go with intuition anyway, and I don’t believe in the afterlife, so … YOLO? But after seeing a young woman who swam in the notoriously filthy Hudson River — toward the Statue of Liberty, for the TikTok likes — emerge from the muck to describe herself as possessing a “YOLO mentality,” I now find myself doubting whether I can really hang with this YOLO crowd. Call me an introvert, but in my opinion, swimming in a river that was once so toxic that people still joke about lighting it on fire is something you do alone on a moonlit evening, maybe with one friend.
Since 20-year-old Donna Paysepar dove into the river on August 12, from a boat she and her family had chartered off the coast of Long Island, she has been racking up the social-media likes and attention. The ten-second TikTok video of Paysepar’s daring swim has been viewed 2.7 million times and garnered 244,000 likes so far. She’s also gained some 2,000 new TikTok followers. (NJ Advance Media reports that technically she was swimming in the Upper New York Bay, which is fed by the waters of the Hudson and the Gowanus Canal.)
But although this was an action undertaken for TikTok clout, I doubt there will be many copycats. Reactions to the video ranged from bemused horror on social media to pointed ill wishes. “A lot of people are being very mean, saying, ‘I hope she dies from that water,’” Paysepar told ABC 7. She did expect the video to go viral, she told NJ Advance Media: “Honestly I expected it to do that,” she said, “‘cause I kind of knew this was kind of an outrageous activity.” She went on, “When it started getting likes I was like ‘Ok, this was what I wanted.’” Paysepar, who works as a lifeguard at a day camp and gives private swimming lessons when she’s not attending college, described herself as “the crazy one in my family, always doing the most.”
Which is not to say swimming in the Hudson is such a crazy thing to do, not anymore at least. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation says you can “generally” swim in the river, but that in New York City, rainfall flowing into sewage-treatment plants can cause “overflows of untreated or poorly treated waste into the Hudson.” The river’s less-than-sterling reputation is a deterrent, too. Westchester magazine reports that starting in the late 1800s General Motors began dumping industrial waste from its automobile manufacturing operations into the river, and 50 years later the company started filling the river with toxic PCBs, synthetic chemicals used for fire prevention and insulation that have been linked to cancer and other illness in humans. These chemicals mixed with the sediment and poisoned the fish, resulting in the Department of Environmental Conservation banning all fishing in the northern Hudson in 1976. Paysepar said in a separate TikTok video that she got some water in her mouth that “tasted really bad.” The DEC recommends not swallowing the Hudson’s waters should you swim in it.
Just something to consider if you decide to take a dip in the Hudson. I think it’s good to have as much information as possible before you make a decision. Because YOLO.