Polar Bear Plunge Draws 15 Icy Souls

Times Staff Writer

Twenty some years ago, a group of underwater divers were partying hard in La Jolla on New Year's Eve when one of their number decided it would be real cool to plunge into the cold water off the sea wall at Casa Beach.

His name is forgotten but his courage is not. Each New Year's morning since then, as they did Friday, an assemblage of divers has walked to the end of the wall and thrown themselves into the frigid ocean surf.

They say the blast of ice-cold water rings in the New Year, cures hangovers and shows the world that Man can indeed withstand the elements.

So why do they really do it?

Steve Maddex waxed eloquent: " 'Cause we do it every year, man."

With the air temperature in the warm mid-60s and the water temperature at 55 degrees, was it all that cold?

Skip Kohler waxed wise: "It was colder than brass on the windward side of an iceberg."

More Than Simple Dip

This year's polar bear swim, sponsored by the Diving Locker, drew 15 hearty souls--14 male and one female. And it was more than just a simple dip into the water.

Over the years, the annual dive has developed into a masquerade as well. Instead of wearing scuba gear and wet suits, the divers don costumes. Past plungers have hit the waves dressed in everything from tuxedos to beer cans.

On Friday, Kohler wore a circa-1930s two-piece striped swimsuit and a straw boater atop his head. Maddex wore a cowboy hat, lifeguard jersey and red basketball shoes. Terry Nicklin, a dive organizer, was decked out in a black suit and tie, with white shoes.

"It's very cold and yet also seems very civilized," said Nicklin, attempting to make some kind of philosophical statement.

The prize for best costume went to four divers who showed up at the last minute wearing brown trash bags and white gloves and strutting to the tune of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" blaring from a oversized portable stereo.

"My nephew in Texas came up with the idea," said Roger Sodergren. "We're California raisins."

Their ingenuity paid off. First, the costumes won them a free underwater video rental. Second, and more important, the plastic bags kept a lot of the cold water out.

Conditions Almost Perfect

Actually, it was not a long swim. The water level where they jumped in was about chest high. The shore was only 100 yards away, reachable by dog-paddle. And the wind was calm, the sun shone bright and the sand was warm to the toes.

After the initial shock, the rest was a breeze.

"Yeah, it was cold," Maddex said. "It just about numbs you at first. You can't breathe. The cold is so hard and hits you so hard. You just go: 'Well, I'm cold and wet so maybe I should swim home.' "

His brother, Patrick, stood dripping wet on the beach. "It's warmer out here," he said. "But it wasn't so bad in there, either. Once you're in, your body almost instantly climatizes itself."

Steve said he felt good. He looked at the water and said he just might get back in. "Me too," said Patrick. "I'll probably do it again in a year."

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