Last Jan. 1, several dozen Las Vegans braved the brisk morning air. Their cars ground frozen snow beneath unsure wheels, slid along Seventh Street, past Wal-Mart, past the after-holiday sales. Storrie Lake loomed before them. A yellow backhoe rested near the shore, it’s operator satisfied with the job he did hacking up ice three-inches thick. An ambulance driver stood ready, his hands warm inside heavy wool mittens. They both glanced at the crowd of Polar Bear Club members giddy for a chance to welcome the New Year with a burst of hypothermic pain.
The first Polar Bear Club began on Coney Island in 1903, the vision of an early advocate of physical fitness and natural foods. Bernarr Macfadden was called the “Father of Physical Culture,” authoring over 100 books on his theories of health, sexuality, and fitness. He wrote that “our bodies are our most glorious possessions, health-wealth is our greatest asset, weakness is truly a crime, every man can be a vigorous vital specimen of masculinity, and every woman can be a splendidly strong, well poised specimen of femininity.”
Macfadden believed that a dip in the brisk ocean during winter can be a boon to one’s stamina, virility, and immunity. He convinced a small group of New Yorkers to chase the waves along the shore of the famous amusement park. The Coney Island Polar Bears Club began it’s annual New Year’s plunge into the chilly surf, soon counting such luminaries as NYC Deputy Police Commissioner George S. Dougherty and Supreme Court Justice Crater, long famed for his disappearance, among its members. The freezing swim came to symbolize rebirth, the emergence of a warm, beating heart still alive from the cold depths of the sea.
Las Vegas began its own frigid tradition on New Year’s Day, 1998, the first of its kind in New Mexico. Founding member of the New Mexico Polar Bear Club, Tito Chavez, reports that six men and one woman faced the icy silence of Storrie Lake during the premiere event. This year over a hundred brave souls are expected to participate, from high school teens to men and women with grandchildren cheering them on from the snow-covered shore. Highlands University student Corinne Maestas braced herself for the shock of ice against skin during last year’s event.
“I still can’t believe I did it. I wore a bikini, too!” Maestas laughed as she recalled her feat. “My boyfriend bet me I wouldn’t do it, so I think I went through with it to prove him wrong. I’m glad I did.”
Last year’s swimmers wore swim suits, wore shorts and t-shirts. They gathered near the dock as a park ranger in a bright orange wetsuit guarded the sharp ridge of ice. The audience faced the lake in winter jackets and knit caps, most carrying cameras to document the strange journey. Someone started a countdown - ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one - then a rise of happy screams filled the air as one by two by three the jumpers flailed from the dock to the depths.
“The water was so cold I couldn’t feel it.” Maestas groaned. “I couldn’t breathe. My lungs just tightened up. But when I splashed around I realized how alive I felt. I am definitely jumping again this New Year.”