Record number of Vancouver "Polar Bears" take the plunge

15:16, January 02, 2011      

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Vancouver's annual Polar Bear Swim had a record number of participants Saturday as 2,230 people plunged into the chilly waters of English Bay on a sunny New Year's Day in the Canadian city.

In the presence of about 10,000 viewers at the 91st edition of the long-running event, the record number of participants eclipsed the old mark of 2,128 set in 2000. A spokesman for the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club, the event organizer, said the figure was likely higher as many people hadn't bothered to register.

On a day when the air temperature was hovering around zero degrees Celsius at the downtown beach area, the water proved almost as chilly at six degrees Celsius. The shock of cold, however, did little to deter the many revelers, several of them seeing this as merely a sequel to the previous night's festivities, as the 2:30 p.m. starting gun set off a stampede into the cold water.

"It' s the one time of the year you go in to purge your sins. I figure I got to go in for about two hours," said Chad, a young reveler who was there with several friends in tow. "It's not bad. It's like I'm in Mexico right now. It's my fifth year (in the swim), it's a walk in the park. You're stupid not to do this. I'll go again."

Those participants who were especially bold wore colorful costumes, some of them spunky: There were revelers dressed as Santa, construction workers, little devils, Gumby, reindeer, Elvis Presley. Some showed their refined taste by coming in formal dress. Most, however, wore bathing suits with little else to protect them from the elements.

Barry E. Weinbaum, relaxing in a warm robe on the beach after his dip, was participating for the 13th time. He usually doesn't participate in a swim if there is a chance he could catch pneumonia.

Despite this year's swim having one of the coldest on-land temperatures in recent years, he took the plunge and found the water "nice."

"From my experience, you are running in the water and you don't really feel the shock. Then you dive in and you come up and you run back to the shore and you feel that's nothing. Then you go running back," Weinbaum said.

"Most people do a second plunge because you feel you ran out too fast [the first time]. When you go in the second time, that's when you feel the life being sucked out of you and deep narcosis, the cold. Then it is real fun to get out on the beach," the seasoned participant said.

The Polar Bear Swim started in Vancouver in 1920 with only a handful of participants in the inaugural event organized by Peter Pantages, a nephew of Alexander Pantages, a famous theater impresario during the Vaudeville era. Today, members of the Pantages family still participate in the annual swim.

Also among the swimmers was Aaron Jasper, the Vancouver Park Board chair. Clad in a black 1920s-style bathing suit bearing a "Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club" logo, he called the event "a fresh start for everybody" participating.

"Maybe you have had a rough year and just to be a little daring you come here and push yourself outside your comfort level. You know Vancouver is sometimes called a 'No-fun city,' but you come to an event like this and I think we know how to have a good time," Jasper said.

Dave Paslawski, a veteran lifeguard who has been surpervising the Polar Bear swims since 1988, said while the events are indeed fun they can be dangerous for those drinking alcohol and others pushing their limits by staying in the water for too long and potentially exposing themselves to hypothermia.

"It's dangerous without a doubt. You don't want to be in the water too long. Most of the people that are usually are well insulated, a lot of body fat. But if you are skinny, let's face it, that water's going to be cold after three to five minutes. So we have to watch out. That's why we're here," he said.

"Honestly, when you get 2,500 people charging at you down the beach it's quite intimidating. A lot of drunk people, a lot of people having fun though. But you'll see a variety of people in different outfits, maybe no outfits at all. But it's always fun, always entertaining," the lifeguard said.

Source: Xinhua
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