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Polar Bear Swim 2016 in Vancouver

Life Is either a daring adventure or it is nothing – Helen Keller

Why do we make new year’s resolutions? January is named after Janus, the Roman God with two faces. One face looks forward as the other looks back. As we look forward, we reflect on the past. Through the reflection, we resolve to make changes to shift our future by the choices we make today. For myself, 2015 was full of transformation and big changes. The end of a seven year relationship led to moving to a new home. New space equals new community. Although change is important for personal growth, I found it incredibly painful. As I move forward into 2016, I resolve to embrace adventure through wellness, laughter, and challenges.

Welcome to Polar Bear Swim 2016 Photo by Catherine
Welcome to Polar Bear Swim 2016
Photo by Catherine

What a perfect way to mark the new year by participating in Vancouver’s Polar Bear Swim? Several weeks ago, my friend, Wade asked me if I would consider doing the swim with him. In the summer, I’m an avid swimmer. Its difficult to keep me out of the ocean. In the winter, I try stay warm. Warmth is another word for dry in my vocabulary. Although I’ve had yoga teachers tell me that a cold dip in the morning can cleanse the aura, I’ve noticed I tend to stay healthier by keeping my body and my diet warm in winter months.

As Wade continued to talk about the swim, my heart went out to him. He told me that he used to do the annual swim with his sister in law, Cheryl. Cheryl passed away of breast cancer. I liked her. It would be a great way to honour her. Heart fought with fear. I was a “definite maybe.”

Wednesday night, my friend, Catherine and I were enjoying a post workout dinner. When I mentioned Wade’s request, Catherine asked, “Should we do it?” After a pause, I said, “Yes!” I texted Wade to confirm and let him know that I had recruited a friend.

This morning, I woke up and wondered exactly what I committed to. I reached out to my facebook community. “It’s my first polar bear swim Advice is welcome,” I posted. Advice flowed through the comments:

1) Keep your feet warm. The sand is cold. Warm shoes like Uggs and a bathrobe.
Keeping my feet warm made logical sense. Common sense warred with my experience with earthing. Earthing is the practice of connecting your bare feet to the earth. Last year practicing medical qi gong with my classmates in the winter months, I decided to try it. My friends, herbologist Michele Collins Vergara and her husband, acupuncturist Andres Vergara of 4 Branches Chinese Medicine Centre recommended it. I found practicing qi gong on the frosted grass by Stanley Park Pavillon in bare feet easier. Some of the health benefits from the practice of earthing include increased energy, reduction of imflammation, improves recovery time from fitness, and many more. For myself, the most important benefit was adjusting to temperature changes. Based on that experience, I decided to go barefoot.
2) Two towels – one to keep warm, one to dry off.
Two towels sounded like a luxury. It could be too much to carry, so I chose to bring one. I didn’t want to bombard Ellen (our fearless cheerleader who supported this endeavour) with stuff to carry, so I decided not to.
4) Hot Chocolate or tea.
Warmth is a beautiful adjective. Something that I aspired to be.

I thought about how often I change behind a towel at Kits Beach in the summer. I wore my bikini underneath clothing that I would describe as “easy to put on.” Warm socks and zip up snow boots. I packed my warmest sweater and jacket. For a moment, my inner diva considered creating a costume. The thought of cold, wet fabric clinging to my skin made me change my mind.

Caroline MacGillivray, Wade Westling, Catherine and Polar Bear Swim Veteran
Caroline MacGillivray, Wade Westling, Catherine and Polar Bear Swim Veteran

Dressed as Elvis, Wade greeted Catherine and I. Ellen and our friend photographer, Steph Schumann came to support our adventure. The beach was packed with people dressed in costumes. Eye candy for the crowd, was a buffet for a photographer like Steph. Jelly fish, angels, Batman, Santa and many more people looked fantastic on this sunny January day. Only in Vancouver might we see the truly Canadian sighting of police officers riding horses along the shores of English Bay. With a combination of excitement and dread, Catherine and I muttered, “I can’t believe we are doing this!”

Catherine and I swimming in the water. Photo by Steph Schumann Photography

Over the PA system, we heard that the swim was beginning in 15 minutes. We asked someone for the time. It was 2:23pm. It was scheduled to start at 2:30pm but in Vancouver time, it was going to start late, I thought. I thought incorrectly. The wave of anticipation was too much for my fellow Polar Bear Swimmers. Hundreds of people ran to splash in the water before the swim began! Wade ran ahead and dunked immediately. As he was coming back to the shore after his first dive, I asked him if we would join me. He said, “Yes.” We ran into the water. “Oh my goodness, it is freezing,” I muttered as the water wrapped around my waist to my toes.

Vancouverites Run to Ocean for Polar Bear Swim 2016 English Bay, Vancouver, BC Photo By Catherine
Vancouverites Run to Ocean for Polar Bear Swim 2016 English Bay, Vancouver, BC
Photo By Catherine

“Come on in!” Wade encouraged.

I dove in and allowed my stomach to graze along the bottom of the ocean. In shallow waters it was a gentle dive. As I came up to the surface, it felt warmer. I could see Catherine looking for us on the shore. “Catherine!” I called. She looked over and I came towards the shore. Originally she had planned to just wade in the waters. She changed her mind and dunked her head.

Catherine Yeung and Caroline MacGillivray at Polar Bear Swim 2016. Photo by Catherine
Catherine and Caroline MacGillivray at Polar Bear Swim 2016. Photo by Catherine

Steph spotted us. As she made her way over to us, our bodies adjusted to the cold. My feet felt like they were burning. Drunk on ocean therapy, laughter, and disbelief, I felt euphoric. When Steph asked us to jump back in for photos, we said, “Yes!” Wade popped back in for photos. “Where were you?” I asked. I learned the downside of costumes and cold was being asked to pose for photos like a celebrity. Wade, a veteran of nineteen polar bear swims, adapted easily.
As I changed on the beach, a cameraman and reporter from CTV, came by to interview him.

We did it! Catherine, Wade & I – Polar Bear Swim 2016! Photo by Steph Schumann Photography

Afterwards we wandered over to Cafe Phin & Pho (976 Denman Street). Hot chicken pho soup warmed me from the inside out. As I listened to my friends reflect on the day, I thought it was the perfect start to 2016. A beautiful blend of new and old friends participating in an event that started in the 1920s. The combination of tradition and a new adventure, with the fusion of friendships was a way to look forward and reflect back. Like Janus, the Roman God being able to see the past and move forward in the future made January 1, 2016 a beautiful day!



Caroline MacGillivray Sharing information and stories about fashion, beauty, fitness, sexual and relational health, and wellness is something Caroline does through radio, print and television. Caroline, a 5th generation Vancouverite loves to encourage people to grow, play and learn. A speaker, workshop leader, writer, swimmer, dance teacher, yoga teacher, qi gong medical therapist, and community builder, Caroline wears many hats. Best known as the host/producer for Sexy in Vancity Radio and Founder & Executive Director of Beauty Night Society.

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