The 2017 Corpus Christi Polar Bear Plunge participants brave the winter waters. Photo courtesy Corpus Christi Polar Bear Plunge

Sometime after 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Mayor Greg Bisso of Surfside Beach is going to be cold and wet—on purpose. He, along with a few dozen fellow residents and visitors, plans on braving temperatures forecasted to be in the 40s or 50s, and water temperatures typically in the low 60s, and immersing himself in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the town’s annual Polar Plunge event.

Bisso has taken the plunge more than a dozen times since moving to the beach town located about 60 miles south of Houston in 2003. The plunge was already an annual event in the community, and he’s happily continued the tradition since becoming mayor four years ago. “Before, it was a handful, maybe five to 10 people,” he says. “We have about 40 people [participating] now.”

He hopes to keep cold dipping for as long as he can. “We all go running off into the surf and we come back and stand around and talk. It’s a good way to start the new year. It gets your blood going!”

There’s also hot chocolate at the event.

Even though Texas is not exactly what some might consider “polar” (most of Texas won’t even be near freezing come January), polar plunges, dips, and splashes take place all over the state. And, judging by the large number of events that have been around less than a decade, they’re growing in popularity as more and more New Year’s Day celebrants are drawn to swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and beaches such as Surfside.

Take the Plunge

Dive into these polar bear plunges, dips, and splashes. Check websites, as some may ask you to register before heading out to the venue.

Polar Bear Splash, Austin
Where: Barton Springs Pool
When: Jan. 1; 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Polar Bear Plunge, Corpus Christi
Where: Emerald Beach
When: Jan. 1; noon

Polar Bear Plunge, Elgin
Where: Morris Memorial Pool
When: Jan. 6; 10 a.m.-noon

Frio en el Rio, Terlingua
Where: Big Bend Ranch State Park
When: Dec. 31; 11:45 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

Polar Bear Plunge, Toyahvale
Where: Balmorhea State Park
When: Jan. 1; 9 a.m.

Goosebump Jump, Granbury
Where: Lake Granbury
When: Jan. 20; 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Polar Bear Plunge, Schertz
Where:
Pickrell Pool
When: Jan. 6; 10 a.m.-noon

Polar Plunge, Surfside Beach
Where: Surfside Beach
When: Jan. 1; 10-11 a.m.

Polar Bear Plunge and Fun Run, Wimberley
Where: Blue Hole Regional Park and Cypress Creek
When: Jan. 1; 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Some of the oldest in the state are also the most well-known, like the very popular one held in Austin at Barton Springs Pool, which has hosted a Polar Bear Plunge for more than 40 years. The event attracts around 10,000 people (although not everyone jumps in), which is similar attendance for a Saturday in July. The water at the spring-fed pool stays around 68 degrees year-round; some years, the temperature outside the pool has been warmer than inside it on New Year’s.

Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Balmorhea State Park in West Texas, and many other locations have events happening on New Year’s Day or soon after in January (see sidebar). Last year’s event in Wimberley drew 400 people for an annual 5K fun run and plunge, the city’s Parks and Recreation organizers say. In addition to the plunge and run and a beer sponsor, the 2024 edition will also feature lawn games.

Polar bear dives in the United States date back to the early 1900s, with swimming groups like the L Street Brownies of Boston and the Coney Island Polar Bear Club of New York City believed to be the oldest cold-water swimming clubs to host events. These days many are built around charitable or community fundraising events. This includes Texas: Special Olympics Texas is organizing at least a dozen events from December to February, including a Jan. 6 plunge at Jamaica Beach.

There’s some debate as to whether there are any health benefits to a cold-water shock to the system or if they might be dangerous for inexperienced swimmers. But timing them on Jan. 1 gives these cold dips some deeper significance than a typical swim: The sensation of the chilly water awakens the senses in a way that makes participants feel more alive and ready to tackle a new year. It’s renewing, almost like a baptism to wash off the bad tidings of last year in the hope that good things will follow.

Elgin, about 30 minutes west of Austin, holds its plunge at its outdoor Morris Memorial community pool and offers hot cocoa and donuts, live music, and games for kids. “We offer it so [residents] don’t have to drive an hour to Barton Springs,” says Elizabeth Marzec, program manager at Elgin’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The Elgin plunge has a fan in Lorraine Musick, a participant for about five years. She used to do a similar event when she was a student at Southwest Texas University and then when she lived in San Marcos more than two decades ago after “some 70-year-olds” invited her to dive into the river at Swell Park. Her son joined her for the first time at the Elgin plunge last year when he was 13.

“He popped out of that water faster than anyone, but my joy for his jump was so pure,” she says. “I love the plunge as it is my spark that ignites my year.”

 

 

The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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