What makes a forty-nine-year-old woman feel the need to join a Polar Swim? Having done no formal study, I would assert that no less than 98% of adults think it is nuts. I feel reasonably confident making this assertion because in the weeks preceeding the event, whenever I try to recruit plungers they invariably decline; adding "You're nuts!"Due to the popularity of reality television, I am taking a gamble that readers will take voyeuristic pleasure in my first-hand account of the experience. A raw, un-edited version that can be relayed only by a seasoned veteran of three years in the sport.
Swimming involves the donning of minimalistic apparel. Any attempt at modesty- as in wearing a full-coverage track suit- is not going to work. The more you have on, the more there is to get heavy and wet; thereby padding your odds of drowning or freezing.
No, Ladies, you have to bite the proverbial bullet and put on a bathing suit. I have tried to make cover-up gestures in prior years in the form of tank tops, t-shirts and nylon shorts. It seemed only fair to the innocent spectators, but who was I kidding? Wet clothing of any construction or design clings to every lump and bump for dear life; I have the video to prove it. Besides, we all know that the shivering, well-bundled on-lookers aren't there for support. They are standing by to see flabby, plucked-poultry-looking weekend warriors make fools of themselves. Of course there are young, fit, unreasonably tanned participants, but they don't reap nearly the viewing satisfaction.
That said, a woman-of-a-certain-age still wants to put her best foot forward. Did I mention the videos?
First thing in the morning, I wake up and check my phone. "WTF have you looked outside?" is the text waiting from my friend and polar partner. This prompts me to get up and look outside at the debris left by the howling winds that blew through the night. It's snowing, which is aptly polar. My resolve briefly wavers before I feel a stab to my street cred. I've boasted to anyone who would listen, for weeks, about my intent to repeat this nuttiness. I can't back out now. This feeling is confirmed when I text Denise about my apprehension. "Why should logic enter into this now?" is her message. We do this dance annually; pep-talking back and forth until we meet in our water shoes, ready to go.
More texts ensue; is there a rule of etiquette on this? How many texts can you lob between you before you should get on the phone and talk it out?
This vital communication centers around general grooming and hygiene. I'm frantically giving myself a pedicure; why, I can't be sure since I wear my trusty Keens. I think it has something to do with a dark fantasy in the back of my mind; that I'll succumb to a heart attack, and they will haul my lifeless body from the icy water, hurriedly pulling off the shoes in order to, I don't know, initiate some kind of pedal resuscitation and exclaim, "Sheesh! Lookit those nasty toenails!"
Next comes cleansing, depilitarization and moisturizing. Suffice it to say that after several months of a North American winter, a gal can let herself go. There's the leg shaving to contend with (to the knee only. I'm jumping in the lake; not getting married!) before addressing the bikini line. Yes, I will go there. This is reality journalism after all. How to put this delicately... why do they primly refer to these devices as 'trimmers' when the situation calls for something with 2-cycle oil and a pull cord? Cellulite is one thing. Cellulite in combination with a 'bat-wing' is out of the question. Just one more source of embarrassment should it appear in said video or, worse yet, to the aforementioned rescuers.
Once everything has been tamed and slathered with lotion, there's nothing left to do but grit my teeth and put on the suit. It's a nice one, smartly shaded in darkening degrees toward the bottom in order to make the belly and hips 'disappear'. They lie; you still know they're there, but they do look better. Some adjustment to get the 'girls' at the preferred height. For those not in the know, the bustline should assume a position halfway between the shoulders and the navel (a fact that I was dismayed to re-read, having forgotten the precise details and feeling that mine fell satisfactorily halfway between shoulder and hip). I steel myself and check the mirror, making a stern attempt to remain objective. Yes I'm chubby but the suit is cute, I'm enthusiastic, and I'm a good person with a clean bikini line. I pull on yoga pants- no need for anyone to get the full picture until it is absolutely necessary. Then I go downstairs and blow-dry my hair, going the extra mile and lifting the roots with pomade to achieve a pleasing height at the crown. I whip up some coffee and whole-grain toast. An athlete has to fuel the machine, after all.
After that, I have only to put on my pink robe, earrings and glasses.
Let the games begin!
My husband corrals the dogs, gathers appropriate foul-weather gear, and grabs the camera. With that, we are off to Mayville, NY, the site of the Winter Ice Festival. We stop and pick up my father on the way. He hasn't missed one of these jumps yet (see 'spectators' above). My mom, who was present for the first two, died in May. She remains with us in spirit, and is literally taking part since I'm wearing her swimsuit. One thing is certain; she would not want us to miss this.
A crowd waits at the Lakeview Tavern. We laugh, shout, flash one another and chug a beer before walking over to the place where we will take the plunge. The pathway to the lake is frozen, rutted and icy. The wind has not stopped its howling. As we make our way toward the area cut out of the ice, maybe fifty yards from the shore, a flock of unrecognizable people in hats, scarves, puffy coats, gloves and boots assemble to watch. The mood is convivial, with cheers and words of encouragement. "Good luck!", "You rock!", "You're nuts!!" It is freezing cold. There are already a handful of young, fit, unreasonably tanned boys and girls emerging from the water; gasping and swearing. There are three men in full rescue gear standing in the water. "Who's next?" one calls. Denise looks at me; there's no turning back now. I peel off the yoga pants and drape them around the neck of a friendly woman standing next to me. Last year we threw things on the ice, and they got wet, so no more of that. I pull off the robe, stashing my glasses in the pocket, and she extends an arm, having established herself as my valet. One thing you learn at forty-nine, despite all of the unfortunate things that can happen over a lifetime, people are wonderful. I'm sure she checked out my cellulite, but she was kind.
Denise and I step to the edge, holding hands. I look for my husband and spot him across the waterhole, at an optimal photographic distance. Where's my dad? Not sure, but he must be somewhere near. A guy standing in the water gives us our instructions.
"Be careful, there's a rail in here. We're standing on it." They're about three feet in front of us. An eight-foot metal ladder stands in the water to the left with two or three rungs visible above the surface. The crowd is lively, with cold, wet, laughing post-plungers all around, and more waiting behind us. I look once more at the black, swirling water before going for it. Denise and I tandem-jump and the water hits us like a million icy needles. I've heard it described this way countless times and wish I could come up with a more artful description, but that is exactly what it feels like. Any thoughts of taking a few strokes to clown around are dashed; I can barely breathe! Of the three years, this was by far the coldest. I move forward to give one of the men a spontaneous hug- there is jubilance in meeting this challenge- and he says "Get to the ladder", knowing, I'm sure, that these are not the conditions to linger for even a few seconds. I've lost all track of Denise; at this point it's survival on my mind as I bolt up the ladder and onto the slushy, slippery ice. My wonderful valet helps me into my robe and hands me my pants, saying "You did great!" I'm aware of Denise behind me. She did not have benefit of the ladder and was thus pulled out onto the ice by event volunteers, sustaining bruising and bleeding abrasions to both knees. Badges of honor, we decide.
I must say, once you've been in that water, the outside air does not feel as bad. My feet never get cold in the Keens. This year, though, I get an 'ice cream headache' in my forehead for a few minutes, my ears are on the verge of frostbite, and I touch my hair to find it frozen stiff. Remember the scene in Titanic, when Rose and Jack are waiting in the Atlantic to be rescued? That's how it feels. I pull gloves from the robe pocket and turn up the collar. We should head in but we are having too much fun watching the remaining jumpers. One guy who had not planned on taking the plunge before he arrived wears boxer-briefs and black loafers. Everywhere there are crazy people in tropical swim trunks, underwear, bare feet, bikinis, with and without shirts; you name it, swept up by the fun. I am sure some of those bundled-up spectators wish they had done it, although they protest. Denise has been given a cup of coffee by a friend and offers me a delicious sip. We did it! Again! Street cred intact!
There's a lot of picture and video-taking that we won't remember but will turn up on facebook and you tube over the next few months. We will look at them in horror, unable to believe we did that, wearing that.
I look at it this way; the unfortunate people of this world are the ones who allow their perception of their appearance to stop them from enjoying life. I look like I do and everyone knows it. Does it really make a difference? It has taken me half a century to realize that it does not. I've adopted the same opinion regarding others; checking any deeply-ingrained criticisms or judgments that spring to my mind. To coin the song, everybody's beautiful in their own way. After observing good grooming and hygiene, which is nothing but self-love and good manners, we owe it to ourselves to let it go and have a good time.
We walk back to the Lakeview and change into dry clothes, emerging from the bathroom to cheers and laughter. Then we drink, have lunch, and re-live the plunge with the other patrons. There are more pictures.
It is an awesome day.
Can't wait til next year!