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Hundreds find joy and renewal in La Jolla’s annual Polar Bear Plunge

Swimmers cope with the cold water during the annual Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores on New Year's Day.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Leaving wetsuits behind, swimmers dive into 59-degree water at La Jolla Shores.

He’s 75, is missing part of a leg and gets around on aluminum crutches.

Gurujan Dourson also is an athlete and a joy seeker. So he handed off the crutches and dove into the 59-degree surf at La Jolla Shores on Jan. 1, immersing himself in San Diego’s are-you-tough-enough-for-this Polar Bear Plunge.

It’s a New Year’s Day ritual that has been staged for decades by the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, even on days like this, when “green meanie” waves were cracking ashore while spiky stingrays skittered in the shallows, hidden by the ocean’s froth.

Dourson, who has competed in hundreds of triathlons, soon rose to the surface bearing a mile-wide smile.

“This is all about the people,” said Doursan, who lives in San Diego. “We’re blessed to be living in paradise. The water is incredible.

“What a way to start the new year.”

The plunge came amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still so omnipresent that some people who participated in the plunge wore masks until all the participants were called together for a huge group photo.

The swim club was concerned that the COVID situation might scare people away, though the event was being held outdoors, where the disease is less likely to spread.

The event typically draws large crowds. Smaller groups of friends and families gather for their own dunk in the ocean.

Bowen Magaudda, 2, and Sophia Magaudda were among the estimated 200 to 250 swimmers in the Polar Bear Plunge in La Jolla.
Bowen Magaudda, 2, and Sophia Magaudda were among the estimated 200 to 250 swimmers who participated in the annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day in La Jolla.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

An estimated 200 to 250 people — none wearing wetsuits — streamed into the ocean Jan. 1, including Amanda Guenther of Poway, whose lime-green bathing suit stood out against a nearly spotless blue sky.

“The water is so cold you kind of black out,” Guenther said. “But I’m glad that I’m doing this.”

Erik Gantzel of San Diego stood nearby, holding a surfboard that gave him a ride through the breakers.

“The water is not as cold as the air,” Gantzel said. “When you first get in the water, it doesn’t feel bad at all. But after awhile, you feel it.

“This is a fresh start that clears the head. We usually do this on the winter solstice. But we couldn’t all make it on that day.”

Gantzel was referring to the Winter Welcome Without Wetsuits, or WWWW, club, an informal group of friends who attended La Jolla High School decades ago.

About a dozen of them showed up Jan. 1 to chew the fat and tap the surf.

“All of us were literally in the same class 40 years ago,” said Greg Wadsworth of La Jolla. “This is a way to reestablish bonds. It’s a ritual.”

Jim Frager, Erik Gantzel and Tim Wright (from left) head into the surf at La Jolla Shores on Jan. 1 without their wetsuits.
Former La Jolla High School classmates Jim Frager, Erik Gantzel and Tim Wright (from left) head into the surf at La Jolla Shores on Jan. 1 as part of their annual tradition of winter surfing without their wetsuits.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Like many baby boomers, they have a lot of aches and pains.

“My back is so sore it’s hard to get out there these days,” said Tim Wright of San Diego, who nonetheless caught a few waves.

“It’s refreshing, invigorating, lets you know you’re alive. It reminds you of what we have to be grateful for.”

Heather Anderson, a San Diego native, went to even greater lengths to attend the plunge, the 13th she’s participated in.

She now lives in Madison, Wis., and had to catch a plane to San Diego just before Christmas so she could visit friends and family and take the plunge.

“This event is significant for a lot of people due to the pandemic,” Anderson said. “People are trying to reconnect with each other. They feel the need to do that.”

The Polar Bear Plunge also served as a “double miles day” for the La Jolla Cove Swim Club’s ongoing “Big Chill” event. The annual program invites club members to swim during the offseason (November to April) and log their hours to earn patches and other accolades. Most days, swimmers can log only the miles they swim, but during the Polar Bear Plunge, they got to log two miles for every mile.

Other double-mile days include Christmas Eve, Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day and others.

Those who participate gain “personal satisfaction, good exercise, bragging rights, the thrill of survival,” according to the club. Patches are awarded to those who swim 25, 50, 100, 150 or 200 miles, and gift cards are given to the man and the woman with the top mileage.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.