Polar Bear Swim sees wide success after rogue beginning
By Iris Liu, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, February 8, 2013
Shivering in bathing suits and towels while waiting to plunge into Occom Pond’s frigid waters, Dartmouth students may wonder why swimming in sub-zero temperatures became a part of Winter Carnival tradition.
The Polar Bear Swim is one of the most recent additions to the weekend, begun in 1995 by Rachel Gilliar ’98, who sought to develop a new activity for her freshman Carnival. Unbeknownst to College administrators, Gilliar and her friends borrowed a chain saw from the Dartmouth Outing Club to cut a hole in Occom’s ice.
Gilliar, who was on the Winter Carnival council, said she was conscious of safety issues when she was planning the swim. Many emergency medical technicians and CPR-certified volunteers offered to oversee the event, and participants had ropes tied around their waists, she said. College security and administrative officials, however, were not notified.
“It felt kind of rogue in that it was very grassroots,” Gilliar said. “It was all students that year. There wasn’t an adult in sight.”
Since then, the Polar Bear Swim has become substantially more regulated, with Dartmouth Emergency Medical Services and Safety and Security officers on scene to monitor the event. Participants are required to sign a consent waiver before they approach the water, and ropes are attached to their waists to help minimize any risks, according to Polar Bear Swim chair Alexandra Gordon ’13.
Carpets are also placed on the ice to prevent any participants from slipping, EMS president Nick Valentini ’13 said.
“We are ready to respond to almost any accident or injury during the event,” he said. “But thankfully we haven’t seen anything major in the past few years.”
To standardize the swim, the College contracts L&M Construction Company to cut a hole in the ice and restricts the number of people who can be on the ice at any time, according to Eric Ramsey, director of the Collis Center for Student Involvement.
Although students are eager to cheer on their friends and take pictures from the sidelines, only participants, Carnival planners and safety personnel are allowed on the ice, according to Gordon.
“Safety is always our first priority,” Gordon said. “We haven’t really had any accidents in the past, and we want to keep it that way.”
In the swim’s early years, enthusiastic family and friends were allowed to spectate from the ice.
In 1997, several of these visitors became unintended participants. Marc Resteghini ’99 said his parents were the first to enter the water when they fell through the ice walking across the pond.
“All of a sudden, I turned around, and my parents were up to their shoulders in ice,” Resteghini previously told The Dartmouth.
Since then, new security protocol have prevented such accidents from being repeated, Gordon said.
Safety issues aside, one may wonder what could possibly prompt hundreds of students to plunge into a frozen pond each year. Many students cite wanting to take part in the College’s traditions as reason to participate in the event.
“There’s just something about the Dartmouth atmosphere that lets traditions like the Polar Bear Swim flourish,” Emily Leede ’15 said. “We’re really proud of our traditions here, and I’m such a fan of doing weird things like this.”
For Marion Ruan ’13, the hardest part about the swim during her freshman year was waiting on the ice before jumping in the water, she said. While the experience was worthwhile, she doesn’t plan to do it again, she said.
“It’s so cold — you get this giant adrenaline rush,” Ruan said. “Doing it with all of my friends for the sake of tradition was a lot of fun, but once is enough.”
In fact, Occom Pond’s waters were so cold that Hemayat Chowdhury ’14 was unaware that he had sprained his ankle until hours afterward. Chowdhury slipped on the ice on his way to the Polar Bear Swim. Though he said the pain was initially bothersome, he “completely lost feeling” after the swim and did not realize that his ankle required medical attention until long after he had “thawed out.”
Adam Tapley ’03 recommends that students participate in the Polar Bear Swim with a group of friends. He said this tactic helps to quiet restless nerves and ensure that the whole group goes through with the event. While his friends felt “nothing but cold,” once Tapley got over the initial shock of the freezing water, he said his body felt “on fire.”
Tapley attributes the Polar Bear Swim’s popularity to students’ desire to push their bodies’s physical limitations.
“It’s definitely Dartmouth tradition and spirit to push your limits in a lot of different ways,” Tapley said. “That’s why we have so many crazy things like the Polar Bear Swim, the Ledyard Challenge and the Fifty.”
Within four years of the first Polar Bear Swim, the event had become tradition, Gilliar said.
“The Polar Bear Swim’s ‘you versus nature’ quality appeals to Dartmouth students,” she said. “We pride ourselves for our reputation of working hard and playing hard. It’s a part of who we are.”