San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 1st, 2008
‘Polar bears’ come out in Kyle

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

KYLE – They came to bring in the new year with a shock to the system, a bracing and exquisite joy and agony, a fresh, cold, symbolic jolt. They came to take a dip in the middle of winter.

About 20 people of all ages, mostly from Kyle, came to the city swimming pool Tuesday for their turns in the Kyle Polar Bear Club, convening for the fourth consecutive New Year’s Day. The sun shined, the air was a brisk 55 degrees, and the water was very cold.

The polar bear swim is fast becoming a New Year’s Day staple as similar events crop up all over America. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club in Brooklyn, NY, is said to the oldest in the country, gathering for winter swims since 1903.

Most locations do it in natural waterways, provided they aren’t frozen on New Year’s Day. Kyle’s polar bear swim is a little on the quirkier side, since Kyle doesn’t lie near a natural waterway. However, right after the city opened its swimming pool in 2004, it took its first polar bear swim on New Year’s Day, 2005.

Kyle Parks and Recreation Director Kerry Urbanowicz said the pool needed no particular preparation, other than to clean out a little cypress that blew into the water. The pool is always full and the pumps are always running, Urbanowicz said, because that’s the easiest and most cost-efficient way to maintain the facility.

Participants, even those who have done it before Tuesday’s swim, sometimes spoke as if they weren’t entirely sure why they would do it.

“I try to not think about it until I do it,” said Roger Smith of Kyle, who now is a veteran of all four Kyle polar bear swims. “It’s cold. I try to get friends over here for it, but they don’t understand. I guess I don’t understand, either.”

Smith’s son, Richard, will turn 14 on Saturday. Richard has accompanied his dad to these swims in past years. This year, he thought he’d try it. He did, and didn’t last very long, stunned into a loud yell when he entered the water for only a moment before quickly climbing out of the pool. At least he took the plunge. Consider it an initiation. Next year, he’ll know what to expect.

Councilmember Michelle Lopez came out to support the event, but figured she would no more than dip her feet into the water.

“I purposely didn’t put anything on that would make me think I might get in,” Lopez said. “I didn’t want to get too caught up in the excitement.”

However, Councilmember David Salazar took the swim, as did Urbanowicz.

At least two pairs of participants were daughters with their fathers. The daughters insisted on participating and the fathers went along for moral support.

Leo Guilbeau of Kyle said he’ll never do it again “if I can help it,” but this time, he just couldn’t help it. His stepdaughter, Denise Meldor, wanted to take the plunge.

“We try to support her in her new endeavors whenever we can,” Guilbeau said.

Likewise, Jeff Spencer of Kyle gave it a try at the insistence of his eight-year-old daughter, Shelly. The young girl shivered under a towel after her swim, but she had a smile on her face and, to make it a little sweeter, she won a couple toys in a drawing.

“She wanted to do it, so we did it,” Spencer said. “With the new year, washing away the past freezes it.”

The cold swim braces in the new year and, perhaps as symbolically, it closes off the holidays. Dorothy Hollis of Buda was going to take some kind of swim on New Year’s Day, but the Austin swim at Barton Springs took place at 10 a.m. and she thought the 1 p.m. start in Kyle suited her better.

“It’s a frozen cleansing of the soul to start the new year,” Hollis said. “I had company at my house for 10 days, so I needed to get out.”

The swim began at the south end of the pool, with swimmers traversing the pool and coming up the steps on the north end. The first across was Brent Luck of Austin, who has made an annual event of the polar bear swim with his friend Jack Myers of Temple. Luck and Myers, chums from high school, spent a low-key New Year’s Eve with their families.

They arrived in Kyle Saturday to find sunshine and pretty, blue swimming water. But it only looked like summer water. That’s kind of the point. That, and a jolt for the new year.

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