Updated: 7:14 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 | Posted: 7:14 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013

New Year’s Day swimmers? Who are these people?



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New Year’s Day swimmers: Who are these people? photo
Elena Howard, 8, looks a little apprehensive as she talks with her mom, Louise, atop the slide at the Pflugerville Pfreeze Pflop at the Scott Mentzer pool in Pflugerville on Jan. 1. Howard eventually took the plunge into the cold waters along with a few dozen others celebrating New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Day swimmers: Who are these people? photo
James Urvina, 10, reacts after sliding into the water at the Pflugerville Pfreeze Pflop at the Scott Mentzer pool in Pflugerville on Jan. 1. A few dozen people celebrated the New Year’s tradition of plunging into the cold waters.

By Andrea Ball

American-Statesman Staff

Every winter, I wince at the thought of the Polar Bear Plunge at Barton Springs Pool.

Surely you’ve heard of it. On New Year’s Day, hundreds of brave souls trot down to the popular pool and jump into the perennially 70-degree water. Whether it’s 0 or 80 degrees outside (and since it’s Texas, it can be either), they’re out there to celebrate the new year with a ritual I can only describe as hideous.

Look, I know we’re not living in the Arctic here. On Jan. 1, Austin’s temperature hovered around 47 degrees. It’s not that cold. But it’s cold enough. Combine that with the bathing suit element and you’ve pretty much created one of the most unappealing scenarios I can imagine.

It’s a scenario, however, that suits many others. Close to 1,000 Alaskans plunged into the ocean on New Year’s Day, as did tons of people in New York, Illinois, Minnesota and other absurdly cold places. Apparently Chicago swimmers got a really balmy deal when the 37-degree water in Lake Michigan turned out to be warmer than the 18 degree air temperature.

Who are these people?

Now I know. Based on my exhaustive, completely valid scientific research that consists of interviews with three people, I have been able to identify exactly what all these polar bear types have in common: They can swim. That’s pretty much it.

My first interviewee was Maureen, a member of Friends of Barton Springs Pool. She likes to swim and took the Polar Bear Plunge on a lark after seeing a friend there. Maureen called the experience “freezing” and “crazy” and has no plans for a repeat performance.

My second interviewee was my coworker Eric, who participates every year because it’s a neighborhood social event. He, too, can swim.

My most extensive research came in the form of a 15-minute conversation with my neighbor Annie Hartnett, who regularly attends the event with her husband and son. All sarcasm aside, Annie actually gave me a little insight into the appeal of this annual escapade.

Yes, Annie can swim. She’s been taking her 10-year-old son to the pool since he was an infant. Whenever anyone in the family is feeling run down — be it sad or achy — they hit the pool to refresh themselves.

Annie, 47, is also athletic. She takes dance classes and enjoys yoga. She backpacked across Nepal years ago, which tested her both physically and mentally. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the woman intentionally gave birth at home. That’s hard core.

As for the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day? The dunk makes her skin tingle, invigorates her spirit and makes her feel alive.

“I like to experience extremes and different sensations,” she said.

Then there’s the social aspect. For about a decade, the Save Our Springs Alliance has been hosting the activity, supplying coffee, donuts and a pot luck for swimmers. People stand around the pool, talking, eating, and encouraging nervous swimmers to take the plunge. There’s a unique sense of community that makes the event special, she said.

“There’s a bunch of people down there and whenever anyone gets in, everyone cheers,” she said.

That sounds nice. I like to be cheered. Maybe I should give this a shot. I proposed the idea to my husband, who quickly scoffed.

“I can promise you, that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Maybe I’ll hitch a ride with Annie next year and prove him wrong.

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