New Year’s Day Penguin Swim

By Beth Allyn

Cecelia Klinger, who grew up swimming in the icy waters of Lake Michigan  (can we say burrr) is credited with starting the Polar Bear Swim here at Breakwater in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1960 that it became an organized event when one of our local lifeguards, Darrell Willey (as if I needed another reason to love our men in red shorts) proposed to make it official. It is now known as the Penguin Swim.

Since then the New Year’s Day swim has become a yearly event. And about 15 years ago the SCAQ (Southern California Aquatics) Masters Swim Club expanded the event to include a race with the first male and female swimmers across the finish line being crowned king and queen.

Standing in the crowd all these years, I often thought about joining in the event but then thought, what am I effing nuts? And yet every year I would still think “man what a great way to start the new year” and I would make a plan for next year only to have the morning of the first arrive and be either too hung over or feel that it was way too cold even to consider it. I know this is Southern California, but live here long enough and anything below 50 is too cold.

But then this year arrived and found me mourning the loss of a friend and the need to feel something – even something cold, something she could no longer feel. So with the planets probably aligned, I thought this is the year. The week leading up to it I did my morning runs in the water to make sure I wouldn’t die of a heart attack, and I made my final decision.

I was early that morning, number 4 in line, but I was only going to do the plunge since I am not much of an ocean swimmer. When the time came I ran into the water with 100+ other bodies and didn’t even think about the water temperature, I just felt exhilarated and glad to be alive. The plunge isn’t really a swim, but a run around the lifeguards just in front of the break. It was so much fun! Afterwords I changed into something dry, and I sat back and watched the women of the Alaskan Swim Team beat almost everyone in the swim, and I realized that while I might not be able to swim as fast as them, I could really swim that distance. It really isn’t that much of a swim. I also realized something else: it’s really is a great way to start the year. The year had just started and I had actually already achieved a goal. So come on out and join me next year. Maybe you’ll start with the plunge first also, or maybe you’ll do the swim – but either way you won’t be disappointed.


Categories: Beach, History