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Swimmers prepare for the ‘plunge’

It’s an annual wintertime rite of passage: La Jolla Swim Club’s Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1.

Join in — if you dare.

“Start the new year out with a dip in the cold ocean,” implored well-known long-distance swimmer Anne Cleveland, past Cove Swim Club president. The noncompetitive social event at La Jolla Shores starts with a 10 a.m. swim followed by lunch on the beach.

Club members and guests gather at the Shores lifeguard tower.

Why do it?

“It’s a ritual conducted throughout the world,” answered Bob West, another former Cove Swim Club president. “We have an ocean. We have swimmers. We admire the people in Chicago who break threw the ice and jump in — we just love being part of that ritual.”

It’s all in fun, noted retired lifeguard Joe Barnett, who said the “polar plunge” has been going on in the Jewel since the ‘60s with upward of 100 swimmers participating. “Some dress in seasonal characters, everything from Santa Claus to Hawaiian characters with grass skirts,” he said.

“Everybody has the day off,” he added. “What they do is follow the absolute laws of nature: live, eat and die in the ocean. Other people watch TV, get fat and die of a heart attack. We celebrate life from day to day.”

West agreed participants often like to do the plunge in style.

“Some people wear maybe a tux or a top hat or some other goofy little thing,” he said.

The celebration is mostly geared toward swim club members, but the general public is invited. The barbecue afterward is a potluck.

“The food of the day is chili,” said West, who added the feed generally runs until 12:30 or 1 p.m.

“Guests are most welcome and there will be good food and warm drinks to share,” noted Cleveland, stressing the event is primarily a social occasion. “All of it is free,” she added.

Swim club members point out the water temperature is likely to be about 58 or 59 degrees, so dress accordingly.

“People who swim regularly, we allow them to go where they want,” said West about the New Year’s swim, adding people who aren’t “winterized” and just showing up New Year’s Day are encouraged not to get out past the break line or the buoy 300 yards offshore.

“We advise people to stay within their limits and that they do so at their own risk,” he added.

West encouraged people to bring a positive attitude. “It’s a festive occasion,” he said.

The members of Canadian and American “polar bear clubs” do outdoor bathing or swimming in the middle of winter. “Polar bear plunges” are conducted as fundraisers for charity, notably the Special Olympics.

The oldest ice swimming club in the United States is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club of Coney Island, N.Y., which holds its annual polar plunge on New Year’s Day.