MANILA, Utah – The glacial shock of the polar plunge is momentary. The adrenaline rush lasts a little longer. The memories are more permanent and leave swimmers looking forward to next year.
“It’s very tribal and exhilarating,” Randy Walker said of the tradition of taking a quick dip to start the new year. “It’s a life experience.”
Wednesday marked the 21st time Randy dove into icy waters to commemorate fresh beginnings with the Chilla in Manila. A custom that started as a two-person adventure has slowly grown due to word of mouth. Randy said people ask if he’s hosting another event and if they can come along, and he always says, “Sure,” which leads to a different bunch year after year.
On Jan. 1, 2020, he was joined by a few dozen people, including at least 20 swimmers, on the southern shore of the Flaming Gorge. He had scouted Swim Beach the day before, and while a bit had snow had fallen since then, he was pleased that they wouldn’t have to break any ice to access the water. Steady wind and waves had kept the ice away, though they mostly abated when people clad in a combination of coats and towels turned their attention to the frigid waters.
Safety was stressed. Randy said you reduce the risk when you pick the right place and conditions. Swimmers were told to quickly wade in, slip under the surface, and get out. There was no reason to linger.
“We’re not that brave,” Randy said.
GET IN, GET OUT, GET WARM
People took the plunge in waves, and Randy led the way.
“It’s not that cold,” he shouted as he exited the lake much more quickly than he entered it.
In twos and threes, swimmers shed their protective coats, gathered their courage, and surged into the surf.
Many towels and a few friendly, furry dogs awaited people after they emerged from the waters. Most retreated to warm vehicles to better dry off, though some stayed to watch and laugh at the looks of their friends and families.
A majority of the swimmers dunked themselves, though a few changed their minds after walking out a few feet. Whether they were there to watch or plunge all the way in, everyone knew warm treats and hospitality awaited back at the Walker residence.
NEGOTIATING THE WATERS
It was 32 degrees when the group started out, which Randy said was probably a record high temperature. The 2019 event took place when it was 2 below zero.
Randy said some years the event was delayed a day when the temperature was too low or the winds too severe.
“It’s just common sense,” he said.
By the time the group reached Swim Beach near Lucerne, Randy’s thermostat read closer to 27 or 28 degrees.
Due to the initial winds, there was a brief debate about going to a different place, but they decided to stay where they were at.
“It’s not like we’re going to swim,” Randy said.
After the first group of swimmers dived into the waves, the vehicles lined up to caravan back to Manila. A coarse, thick safety rope had been kept close at hand on the beach but never used, but a tow rope was required when one of the trucks got stuck in the snow heading back up a hill.
Randy noted one year they had to tow a car.
On the way back, Randy kept a close eye for a family from Kemmerer that had been running late. He first paused as a white truck that was headed for the beach approached. It contained two Forest Service workers, who were surprised to see anyone else out there and even more shocked when they learned the group had been swimming.
Randy invited them to join in the fun, adding, “You get a free T-shirt.”
The two men were unconvinced, but it did remind them of something.
“Aren’t you the guy who swims?” one asked.
Randy laughed. His swimming history runs deep. In addition to being a coach for Sweetwater Aquatics Team and USA Swimming, he has traversed the length of the Flaming Gorge and attempted to cross the English Channel. He also served as a Green River councilman and Sweetwater County commissioner in addition to being named to the Green River High School Hall of Fame.
While the two workers didn’t accept the offer, they soon were treated to a show. Randy was excited when the last family arrived.
“Let’s get these guys in there and get their swim,” he said.
A smaller group, including the forest workers, took up positions along the curve of the Flaming Gorge.
While the family made their final preparations, including telling one boy to swap out his boots for shoes, the Forest Service members expressed their awe at people swimming on such a cold day with white caps. They noted the weather was cooperating, as they predicted the next day that the ice would return.
Soon a trio of boys was ready to go. Randy repeated the advice to just get in, get their heads under, and get out. The nodded and charged into the waters, though one simply ran in and ran out without diving in. While encouraged to come back and try again, he didn’t slow down as he headed back to the truck.
Back at the Walker residence, people filled up on hot cocoa and chili. The young swimmers excitedly recreated the expressions they observed on the polar plunge participants. Some rested on couches with their food while others flittered in and out of the many rooms.
Dawn Ward, who is president-west of the Sweetwater Aquatics Team, said they’re a good bunch of kids. While it wasn’t a sanctioned swim team event, she said most of the participants are on the squad.
“For the most part, they will sit down and hang with each other,” she said.
All of the Chilla in Manila participants interviewed said they would be willing to do it again.
“It was really fun,” Courtney Barnes said. “Because the water feels like normal but also really fun.”
Raygen Bauers, who was a first-time participant, said she really enjoyed that she got to go into the water.
Emilee Barnes, another swimmer who had done the event for the first time, called the experience “new and exciting.” She noted the shock she felt when she first hit the waters.
“It was fun and I want to do it again,” she said.
Emilee said she would also invite other swimmers to join the event as a way to meet new people.
Alexia Britton said, “I was excited. Not a lot of people do this because they’re scared.”
She added it was fun to do with friends.
This was the third year Mac Ward took the plunge. He said conditions were about the same as he remembered in past years. He said his favorite part is getting warm again, and he plans on going for a fourth time in 2021.
Logan Bauers, Malachi Villarreal and Zyan Villarreal all said the polar plunge was fun, but stressed that those who follow in their wake should have good footwear.
Logan observed that it’s important to bring something for your feet.
Zyan said participants should “know it will be cold.” He added his feet got the most cold and the only thing he wished didn’t hurt were his toes.
“It was awesome to throw yourself in the water,” Malachi said.
He said the experience was worth it.
“The rest of your body will shake for a little bit, but it will stop,” he concluded.