Last Wednesday was my first Polar Bear Swim of 2007, and it was about time. It’s not good to go for so long without a jolt of intensity.
Although I’m only a recent convert to the Polar Bear lifestyle, I had been intrigued ever since my early days as a bright-eyed first-year. I would receive floods of emails from the countless clubs I’d unwittingly signed up for at the Purple Key fair, along with Daily Messages and the WUFO practice announcements (the listserve never managed to process my removal request). Sitting by my computer, mouse pointer poised over Delete, I would always pause briefly by the weekly Outing Club Polar Bear Swim notifications. “We’ll go next time,” my entry-mates and I vowed. And then, of course, we didn’t.
This year, though, I summoned up the strength for an inaugural dip, courage bolstered by the 60-plus degree nights. I haven’t turned back yet, but not many people do. I suppose that if you’re crazy enough to do a Polar Bear Swim once, then you are already past hooked.
I attribute part of my loyalty to the snazzy blue Williams Polar Bear Club sweatshirts we recently acquired. I think I would suffer guilty pangs if I wore mine around campus without actually being a true, dependable Polar Bear.
Over Winter Break, I proudly donned my sweatshirt, unsure of how my family would respond. In the beginning, they just stared, trying to make sense of it all. “Waiiiiit a minute,” my uncle said finally, in a “gotcha” tone, “It’s not the Williams Polar Bear! It’s the Williams Purple Cow!” He settled back in his seat, immensely pleased.
“Well, the purple cow is our mascot,” I conceded. “The Polar Bear Club is something separate.”
This got my aunt excited. “I know what a Polar Bear Club is!” she exclaimed. “It means that you jump into a cold river on the coldest day of the year!”
I told her that, actually, in our club we jump into a cold river on a regular weekly basis.
“In a wetsuit?” my uncle asked.
Pause. “Umm…birthday suit?” I ventured. .
On campus, too, many students feel a similar bewilderment towards those who leave their toasty dorm rooms to venture down to the Green River after dark. I’m always trying to get more friends to join me, but their excuses are endless. They don’t swim, they have work, they shiver just thinking about it (here they let out little sample convulsions to prove their point). I modeled my new Polar Bear Club sweatshirt and told them that they, too, could own this treasured item if they joined. They told me it was going to take a lot more than a sweatshirt to convince them. “I just don’t think this is the kind of thing that humans are supposed to be doing,” one friend gently informed me.
The thing is, she’s exactly right—and that is the allure. Ordinarily, you do not leave the warmth of indoors to voluntarily hop into sub-arctic waters. You don’t stand on the shore and feel cultish as you chorus the special pre-plunge chant: In, in, in we go. In through the ice and snow. Even when it’s ten below, ‘cause we are Polar Bears. The dip is quick—just right for shocking us out of complacency, and not long enough to induce hypothermia. At its core is the underlying puzzle: why are we attracted to this practice that, by most normal standards, we shouldn’t be?
Well, for one, it’s exhilarating. There’s nothing like a flash of frigidity to wake you up and pump up your night. During fall semester, I would use the Polar Bear Swim as the perfect study break to refocus and power me through the rest of my lab write-ups. Now, over Winter Study, it’s just a chance to shake things up a bit with a jolt of the extreme.
Sometimes, it becomes too easy to fall into a routine of classes, meals and sleep, with assorted extracurriculars thrown in. Polar Bear swimming is about shattering that daily schedule to do something outrageous—and legal. The idea is not limited to ice swimming; on the contrary, there is a value to doing anything out of the norm. Dancing outside the comfort zone keeps things fresh and exciting, forcing you to stay alert, and to be constantly learning, changing and growing.
It is never too late to make the plunge.