Hundreds take 'polar bear' plunge in La Jolla

It was ideal sleeping weather when Liz Foster got in her car around 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day.

A dense fog covered much of downtown and most of the 33-year-old’s neighbors were sleeping off the previous night’s activities. But Foster and around 300 others were up early to take their first dip of the year in the Pacific Ocean.

“While most people have hangovers, we’re out here swimming,” she said while wearing a wetsuit and standing near the beach.

For roughly 30 years, people have been running into the water at La Jolla on Jan. 1, called a polar bear plunge, to kick off the new year. Organizers from the La Jolla Cove Swim Club say the first couple of years drew about 30 participants to the event, but it has averaged around 300 people in recent years.

Many participants have made the swim part of their annual tradition. Unlike extreme polar bear swims in Atlantic City and Boston with temperatures in the teens, it was 59 degrees outside in La Jolla — and the water was around the same temperature — when swimmers took the plunge at 10 a.m. The fog that covered much of the region early in the morning had long burned off.

After a group picture on the beach, some swimmers ran full speed into the water while others took a cautious approach. Most participants headed toward a white buoy about 25 yards from the shore. Some just put their feet in and others did long-distance swims with friends.

Many swimmers said jumping into the cold water was symbolic of new beginnings.

“I feel like it is starting out the year right,” Danielle DeBeliso, 28, of Chicago, who was in town visiting family. “It was very refreshing.”

One of the more senior swimmers was 79-year-old Dorsey Cullen of San Carlos, who has been doing the polar bear event for eight years. He found the swim club as part of an effort to get healthier following a heart transplant and other major health problems, including the amputation of the toes on both of his feet.

He said the cold waters are good for his ticker.

“My heart is just — boom,” he said.

The youngest participant was likely two-month-old Alexander Rogers of Mira Mesa, who was wearing a polar bear onesie. His mother, Chelsey Rogers, swam in the event last year with her husband and said it was time to dip her son’s feet in the water.

“We love swimming,” she said, “and he hasn’t been in the ocean yet.”

Friends Ginger Webb, 10, and Layla Romney, 8, were participating in the swim for the first time after Ginger’s mom said it was good luck. Both went without wetsuits, saying that others who were wearing them were probably overreacting.

“It was warm when I was swimming,” Layla said on the beach after the plunge, “but now I’m freezing.”

Many annual polar bear swims across North America had to be canceled because of frigid temperatures.

Two plunges were canceled in New Jersey because temperatures were expected to be below freezing, according to NJ.com; The Toronto Polar Bear Dip was canceled for the first time in 13 years because of too much ice at the swimming spot, the Toronto Star reported; and a Chicago polar plunge organized by American Greyhound was canceled after it was deemed too dangerous as temperatures were below zero, according to The Associated Press.

phillip.molnar@sduniontribune.com (619) 293-1891 Twitter: @phillipmolnar

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