I’ve got quite a few things on my bucket list that I’ve managed to check off as “accomplished.” The Polar Plunge is on that list. But I’m still not sure if it’s checked off or not.
Back in the 90s I remember heading down to Sheboygan beach one New Year’s Day with friends, to watch these “Polar Bears” jump in. I wasn’t all that impressed. Maybe we got there late, or maybe there weren’t a lot of people jumping in. I know I didn’t understand the timing of it all, that people didn’t generally lollygag around in the lake, splashing and having fun. The whole event takes all of two minutes for most people, not counting the drying off part, which is not exactly thrilling to watch from a distance. All I know is that I was cold and it was kinda boring, watching people mill around on the beach.
But somehow it got on my bucket list to jump in myself. Maybe it was a picture in the paper of a guy wearing a swimsuit and mittens, jumping off a pier. Or, maybe, it was something of a spur-of-the-moment decision two years ago, when a neighbor invited me to come with them down to Bradford Beach to watch the Polar Bears and the kite flyers. Without telling anyone, I secretly wore a swimsuit underneath my clothes, “just in case.” I figured I’d get there and check things out, and if the mood moved me I’d be ready to jump in with the rest.
But parking was a mess and I lost the neighbors, and didn’t get to the beach until about twenty minutes after the “official” start time. I hung back and watched a few stragglers plunge, and mostly I just felt bad that I had missed all the excitement. Something took hold of me then, knowing I had the swimsuit on underneath. Perhaps I had been planning on jumping in all along? I was sad that I had no friends to see me, but I figured it was now or never. I stripped to my swimsuit and headed for a big chunk of ice, and sat on it. I let my feet dangle, but was too chicken to get the swimsuit wet. After a few waves had splashed my thighs, I got out and ran to my clothes, dried off with them (I hadn’t even brought a towel!) and learned a whole bunch of lessons about the Polar Plunge that day. (Wear shoes!)
That little splash didn’t turn out to be enough for me to cross it off my bucket list. I hadn’t fully committed to the experience. Over the next year, I realized that I’d have to do it again, only fully immersing myself. That was the only way to be a true Polar Bear.
At the end of 2009, I tried to drum up a bit of support, hoping to find some friends to jump with, or just to take pictures and hold towels. I didn’t find anyone. And then I was invited to a hot tub party in Chicago over New Year’s Eve. Sleeping in Chicago made getting to the Plunge on time a real challenge, and I didn’t even try.
Of course, me being me, I felt bad that I’d missed it, so when March rolled around, and with it a Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics, I jumped. And fully committed. I ran in, fell down, threw my head under the water, ran out, and learned a few more lessons about Plunge preparations. (Wear knee socks!) Now I was fully Polar Bear, wasn’t I?
Except I hadn’t done it on January 1st like the real Polar Bears. I had to do it again.
This time, I found friends. Out of my World Cup group of friends, which is still getting together regularly, I found a few people eager to jump. I acted as the official Plunge Organizer and Cheerleader. We all celebrated NYE at Ian and Hester’s house, then the next morning a few of us got together and went down to the lake and plunged.
Tonieh and The Dude dressed as a prom couple, and their fabulous picture made it onto JSOnline. Ian wore shorts and a t-shirt. I wore footie pajamas, but at the last minute decided to strip them off and just wear my swimsuit. Ian jumped in with the rest of the group, while Tonieh and The Dude and I jumped in about five minutes later (due to some snafu concerning forgotten corsages). Tonieh and The Dude and I held hands and jumped in, but we separated as soon as I saw how alone the three of us were in the water. Everyone else had finished already! I also didn’t take my own advice, which was to pick a spot ahead of time and run to it as soon as my feet hit the water. I was too embarrassed about the swimsuit I was wearing, and the fact that I felt so visually exposed. I just wanted out and away from all those cameras and eyeballs. I thought about falling in headfirst but decided I didn’t need to do that this year since I did that in March, and the wind was soooo brisk and bitter cold. So I splashed water on my chest and shoulders, quickly ascertained that water had touched all parts of me except my head, and turned around and went back. Now I was a true Polar Bear. Right?
*sigh* I’m thinking I’m probably going to have to do it again another year, wear a better choice of costume, and fall completely in. It does seem to get easier each time I do it. I’ve figured out almost all the kinks in preparation (bring a scarf!) and the water is definitely warmer in January than it is in March. So one of these years, when the sun is out and there is no wind and the temperature is above 20° I will jump in again. I will fully immerse. And then I’ll be a true Polar Bear.