Daily photo by Emily Saunders|
Priceville's Tara Taylor, 12, was one of the participants in the local Polar Bears' annual New Year's Day swim last January.
A chilling plunge
Decatur Polar Bears getting ready for New Year's Day swim at Marina
By Paul Huggins
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Be careful if you become good but distant friends with Elizabeth Pettey.
She might come up with some bone-chilling activity as a way to reunite and deepen the bonds of friendship.
That's what she'll be doing Monday at noon, when she and her close friend Jana Hood of Birmingham once again take the annual Decatur Polar Bears plunge at Riverwalk Marina.
The 15-year-old Decatur High School student has braved the chilly waters of the Tennessee River three other times but missed last year because Hood wasn't able to join her.
It's much more fun to share the exhilarating experience, Pettey said, and doing it gives her and Hood a reason to meet.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders|
Sisters Alana and Amanda Johnson of Priceville emerge from the Tennessee River after participating in the Decatur Polar Bears' annual New Year's Day swim last January.
This will be the 22nd year for the Polar Bears' swim. Decatur resident Wayne Holliday started the tradition as a solitary experience and gradually persuaded friends to join him. Recent years have seen 50 to 70 swimmers.
They leap from the floating docks at the Riverwalk boat launch and swim toward the ramp.
Anyone can participate free, without prior arrangements. Participants can buy event T-shirts, which usually cost less than $15, and proceeds go toward Meals on Wheels.
Some Decatur Polar Bears do the swim out of tradition, some love the stimulation of the chilly water, and some simply want to try something challenging before age or illness takes the chance away forever.
The latter is what prompted Bill Hughes, 73, of Decatur to put on his swim trunks last year, but the unique experience is what will bring him back this New Year's Day. That is, if he gets over a bad cold in time.
"When you get older, you want to try things," he said, noting that his wife getting cancer in the fall of 2005 also helped persuade him to be more adventurous while he still could. "And we got to thinking and said if you're going to do it, you can't keep putting things off."
Frances Childers, 65, of Priceville had the same attitude about seven years ago when she took her first plunge. As a cancer survivor, she said, she just wanted to live more days as if they were her last. She kept doing it, she said, out of tradition and even got her grandchildren to join her.
Among her favorite memories is seeing the reactions of employees when she goes soaking wet into a convenience store and asks if she can change into dry clothes in the restroom.
" 'You what?!' " Childers said they exclaim when she tells them she just jumped into the river.
"I'm amazed at how many people around here don't know about it," she said of the Polar Bears' plunge. "And you'd be amazed how many people will look at you with your hair dripping water on the floor and not even look surprised or wonder why you're all wet."
As for what the chilly waters — which last year measured 51 degrees — feel like, Childers, Hughes and Pettey said it's a shock to the body but wouldn't describe it as painful.
"Really, you don't feel the cold," Childers said. "You're just all excited about it, and when you come out you sure don't feel cold because you're numb."
Pettey said even when the temperature is cold outside, she feels instantly warm when emerging from the river because the water feels so much colder than the air.
"But right when you get in, it's a weird, weird feeling," she said. "Right as you get in, your whole body goes numb and you're trying to swim but you can't feel your feet or anything. But when you're done, you're so refreshed, you're not even tired anymore from not getting to sleep in."
For any first-timers who plan to dive into the water this year, the experienced Polar Bears recommend having some towels or blankets ready at the water's edge and wearing shoes or water sandals while in the water.
Hughes said it's difficult to get up the boat ramp because it's slick and slimy.
"I had to get on my knees and crawl up that ramp last year, it was so slippery. That was the only bad part of it," he said.
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