A Discussion of Polar Bear Clubs
Frigid waters of thirty-eight degrees, pulses racing,
bodies covered only with bathing suits. Jumping into the
ice-cold water is "...like someone squeezing your chest. You
can't get enough air" (Polar Bear Club 2002). "Excitement
fills the air as the crowd of 2000 people all count down
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1...and the adrenaline carries you into
the lake" (Jarosh 2002). Swimming in freezing, ice-cold
water has been a tradition of the Polar Bear Club since
1920. How does psychology play into why people do what
they do, such as jumping into frigid waters or
"Some people believe and perpetuate stereotypes about
particular ethnic groups" (Gall 1996). I interviewed and
asked J.R. Jarosh, the President of one of the many Polar
Bear Clubs around the world, if it bothers him when people
stereotype the club and the people as "psychotic" or
"idiotic." His reply was, "It doesn't bother me a bit.
They don't know what they're missing" (Jarosh 2002). "Some
people combine their firsthand perception of that person
-- appearance, personality, intelligence -- with
stereotypes they have formed about similar people" (Gall
1996). This means that when people see new things, such as
a culture that is unfamiliar to them, some, not all, judge
based on their first impression. Throughout one of the
swims "...one man did it in a pink tutu and a sparkly crown"
(Polar Bear Club 2002). Stereotyping could take place if
someone saw a grown man swimming in freezing water in a
tutu. The Polar Bear Club "...swore it wasn't an
attention-getting thing" (Polar Bear Club 2002). It goes
to show that the participants have confidence and do not
care what others think. If this man did care, he would not
be out swimming in a tutu.
"Whether a reason is right or wrong can only be decided
when there is sufficient knowledge" (Eysenck, Arnold 1972)
on the topic of stereotyping. Stereotyping is a result of
first impressions when there is not enough knowledge, in
this case a lack of knowledge on the history of a
different culture. The Polar Bear Club gets stereotyped as
"psychotic" and "idiotic" because it is a bunch of people
swimming in frigid water, in only bathing suits. But, that
is their culture and it is a tradition. Their culture
should be respected, as should any culture. The tradition
is performed on New Years' Day every year. Would you want
your culture to be stereotyped by someone who knows
nothing about the history or reasoning behind the culture?
I know I wouldn't.
The history of the club is rooted in the European
tradition of saunas and cold-water bathing. It was a
reason and a way to keep the bathhouses busy. These days,
the bathhouses are gone but the swimmers remain. (The
Coney Island 2002)
The reason as to why people jump into freezing, cold water
is because of their motto: "When you start your millennium
at 0 degrees, there is no place to go but up" (Polar Bear
Club 2000, 2002). There are also other reasons why people
take the plunge. One of them is because they do it to
raise money for organizations, such as the Longmont Humane
Society (of Colorado) and the Radio Reading Service of the
Rockies. When asking people why they jump, there are a
variety of reasons. Walter Goedecke, who's the President
of the Polar Bear Club in Colorado, replies that he jumps
"to exercise evil spirits from my body" (Polar Bear Club
2002). Victoria Konterski does it "to feel good" (2002).
One man, Bill Fabing, is a true die-hard fan of swimming
in the water. "...He actually had part of his left temporal
lobe removed seven years ago to curb epileptic seizures"
(2002). It is mind boggling, yet fascinating, to think
that a man is so devoted to his culture that he removes
part of his brain.
Thousands of people come to watch the tradition take
place, along with broadcasters from local radio stations.
The radio stations have been the event's biggest booster
over the years. The swimmers do not swim for free. A
fifteen-dollar fee has to be paid by each of the
participants, in order to cover liability insurance. In
order to be a part of a particular culture, one needs to
learn to adapt, such as the people of the Polar Bear Club
learn to adapt to cold water year after year.
"Sensory adaptation consists of physical changes that
occur in response to the presence of cessation of stimuli"
(Gall 1996). An example of this is, "...the way in which
cold water becomes more comfortable after an initial
plunge" (ibid). Granted the water is still cold, but one
does adapt to it slightly more than they do when they
first jump in. When the Polar Bear Club swims they, "do
not stay in the water for more than fifteen minutes"
(Vancouver Polar Bear 2002) because hypothermia will begin
to occur. There have been rumors that alcohol is used by
some of the swimmers to help alleviate the initial shock
of the water.
J.R. Jarosh, one of the Presidents, said that, "...they are
very open about our discouragement of drinking alcoholic
beverages prior to the swim" (Jarosh 2002). J.R. says the
reason that the alcohol rule is enforced is because
"...we've tried to promote our club as having the guts to
jump in the lake without having to be plastered to do
it--good clean family fun!" (2002). Motivation exists in
each of the swimmers. For one to jump into frigid waters,
some level of motivation exists because without it, they
would have no reason to swim or take the initial plunge.
"Many theorists have agreed...that people are more strongly
motivated when they project a positive outcome to their
actions" (Gall 1996). Positive outcomes of swimming in
cold water, for the Polar Bear Club, includes raising
money for organizations, having a good time, and making
new friends every year as the club continues to grow.
"Psychologically-oriented theories of motivation emphasize
external environmental factors and the role of thoughts
and expectations in motivation" (Gall 1996). The external
environmental factors, for the Polar Bear Club, are the
fans and spectators. The spectators have the expectation
of seeing and having a good time, and the continuation of
a yearly tradition. The spectators get the swimmers pumped
up and motivated because the swimmers know that the
spectators and fans will be rooting them on every bone
chilling stroke of the swim. The club said earlier that
they do not swim for attention, but having fans and
spectators there to cheer and holler for them adds to
"...the thrill" (Polar Bear Club 2002) of it. Trying
something new, such as jumping into cold water is one way
that we can learn and get first-hand experiences from
other cultures. A person can hear second-hand information
from one of the members, but they can never truly feel the
feelings unless they take the plunge themselves.
Maslow...formulated a list of behaviors that he believed
could lead to self-actualization. These included such
directives as: experience life with full absorption and
concentration of a child; try something new." (Gall 1996)
Less stereotyping may occur if people would open up and
try new things from other cultures. Then, after they have
experienced it, they can make valid observations and
reasons on whether they liked it or not. Gordon Allport,
"...argued that one's self is able to make choices where it
can influence the development of its own personality along
with adjusting to the emergence of new motivational
systems" (Roeckelein 1998). What this is saying is that
each individual member of the club has the ability to make
his/her own decisions. The decisions that they do make
reflect the personality that they have and, depending on
their personality, allows them to try new motivational
things, such as jumping into cold waters.
"Allport emphasized that no two people have exactly the
same traits, and his trait theory of personality stressed
the uniqueness of the individual." In a culture, no one
has the same traits, although same ideas and similar
personalities may be present. The culture of the Polar
Bear Club is one of motivation and determination. A person
has to have a thirsting drive within them in order to jump
into water that is freezing and full of ice. "...The essence
of the Polar Bear Plunge...is that it draws an unusual group
of people" (Polar Bear 2000, 2002).
Every culture has unique individuals that formulate
together because they share similar, if not the same,
ideas, beliefs, interests, or personalities. The Polar
Bear Club started to keep bathhouses busy at a local
beach, and now it is a year round tradition that has
become popular over the years. This is because individuals
are motivated and willing to try something new. The
importance of trying new things lessens stereotyping. One
should not stereotype unless they know all the evidence,
such as the history or background of a culture. Psychology
plays an important and significant role as to why people
do what they do, such as stereotyping others or jumping
into frigid waters. As for the Polar Bear Club, it "...will
continue to bring unforgettable moments to people for
years to come" (Jarosh 2002).
I'll have to admit when I first picked this culture I
thought that I would be out of my league. Everyone I
talked to said that they have never heard of the Polar
Bear Club. Before doing this project I really didn't know
who they were either. I thought they were a bunch of crazy
people jumping into cold waters. I'll have to admit that I
did stereotype them, when I knew nothing about their
history or background. After doing research of the culture
I found out that there was a purpose as to why they plunge
into freezing waters. My motivation for writing this paper
was because I wanted people to read it and learn from it.
Maybe those who were skeptical about the culture before or
stereotypical will get a better understanding of what the
Polar Bear Club is all about.
I learned how to use a variety of resources by doing this
paper. Before this, I never had gone to the library. Even
though all the papers were tedious and time consuming,
they helped my greatly in pulling all the pieces of my
paper together. Doing the annotated bibliography really
helped. A big THANK YOU goes out to you, Ms. Watson, for
making us do that even though we did not want to because
it really helped me out when I had to write the paper.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club.? Polar Bear Swimmers. 25
Sept. 2002 http://winterbathers.com.
Eysenck, H.J., and W. Arnold, eds. Encyclopedia of
Psychology. New York: Herder
Gall, Susan, ed. The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology.
Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.
Jarosh, J. R. Personal interview. 8 Oct. 2002.
Polar Bear Club splashes into new year. Boulder Polar Bear
Swimmers. 9 Oct. 2002 http://rockypreps.com.
Polar Bear 2000 expected to draw 300 dunkers. Boulder
Polar Bear Swimmers. 9 Oct. 2002
Roeckelein, Jon. Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and
Concepts in Psychology. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club. Polar Bear Swimmers. 2