Local News

Wednesday, Jan 01 2014 07:53 PM

Reporter faces frigid water for Polar Bear Plunge

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Bakersfield Californian reporter Rachel Cook hits the water at the 2014 Polar Bear Plunge held at the McMurtrey Aquatic Center.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

I abhor the cold. I detest being cold. But, more often than not, I find that I am cold -- and complaining about it.

I began to consider this weakness in earnest on Tuesday afternoon after volunteering for Bakersfield's annual Polar Bear Plunge at McMurtrey Aquatic Center.

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Equally terrifying as the public swimming pool's temperature was the prospect of a photo of swimsuit-clad me appearing in the newspaper. But since I couldn't turn back 2013 and go to the gym more often, I decided to focus on things I could control -- like fretting about the chilly waters waiting at the bottom of McMurtrey's slide.

I left my homeland of Idaho in part because I disliked the frigid, snowy winters. Even now -- after trading bitter Idaho winters for blazing Bakersfield summers -- my hands and feet are often icy. I nudge the thermostat up a few notches when nobody's watching and I often type at my desk bundled in an afghan.

So I started to question my decision to take the plunge the moment after I made it. My uncertainty increased Wednesday morning as I interviewed veteran "polar bears" and watched them emerge from the pool shivering. To officially complete the challenge, participants must paddle or stumble their way 25 yards before getting out of the pool.

"It's gonna be exhilarating when you first hit the water, but you kind of go numb real quick," said Reggie Smith, 56, who came out for his third brisk New Year's dip.

Smith's son-in-law Jeff Wennihan, 40, assured me that the best part of the experience would be the refreshed feeling awaiting me when I emerged from the pool. His 16-year-old son Trenton Neufeld was less encouraging.

"If you don't like the cold very much, I would just walk," Neufeld advised me while he waited in line for one of two slides that spewed swimmers into the 52-degree pool.

"Red slide all the way," recommended four-time polar bear Brendi Watson. Unlike the enclosed blue slide, you can sit up in the red one, so it's less of a shock when you hit the water, Watson, 44, said.

Taking Watson's advice and mustering my courage, I stripped to my bathing suit -- the comfort blanket of swimming suits, a worn-out one piece that has seen me through several exotic vacations -- and headed for the red slide.

Circumventing the line, I scurried to the top of the tower. I was already breathing rapidly as I surveyed the crowd surrounding the pool and skeptically eyed a man splashing himself with the blue slide's waters to prepare for his descent. The woman ahead of me screeched as she hurdling down the crimson slide's loops, her arms clutching her chest.

Ignoring a tinge of terror when my turn came, I hopped into the slide, adopting a rigid upright position like a toy doll. I forced myself to breathe as the rush of glacial water carried me through the turns of the slide. Bracing for the end, I was just thinking that it wasn't so bad when I hit the pool.

The wave of cold water sucked the breath from my lungs and a chill instantly set into my skin. It felt like I was swimming through ice as I began to drag my stunned body through the water. I am a decent swimmer but my strokes seemed to pack less power in the biting water.

A victorious feeling reenergized me as I splashed toward the edge of the pool and hoist myself out of the water. I can't say I felt instantly rejuvenated, but I was relieved once wrapped in a towel and shakily sipping hot chocolate through a straw.

The worst part of the plunge came after I left the pool, as the numbness set into my toes and I continued to gasp for air -- though a hot shower quickly solved both problems. I don't envy the folks who dove into colder waters off real wintery shores in other parts of the country on New Year's morning, instead of wading through a swimming pool festooned with blocks of ice and faux arctic animals.

Despite my grousing, the plunge was a great way to start the year off with a sense of accomplishment. And luckily, for those of us who jumped in on a sunny morning in Bakersfield, the cold was fleeting.

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