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Oak Street Beach Hosts Polar Plunge

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Kim Dunbar

Born and raised outside Boston, I came to Chicago for the pizza, but stay for the people.

Despite the fact that it's the tail end of January and Chicago is in the midst of a deep freeze, Oak Street Beach was filled with blankets, towels, and swimmers Saturday morning.  Over 200 people were on hand to take a dip in the icy waters of Lake Michigan as part of the Lakeview Polar Bear Club's (LPBC) 9th Annual Polar Plunge.  

According to Weather Channel anchor Mike Bettes--who agreed to take a swim for the good of his show--minutes before the plunge the temperature read 33 degrees (the wind chill brought the temp down to a cool 19 degrees).  "This is right up our alley," said Bettes about the event.  "This is what [the Weather Channel] is about--extreme weather and extreme people doing extreme things," he added.  

Bettes said it took about a week before he agreed to his coworker's challenge to participate in the event, but was at the beach excited and ready:  "It's my 2010 cleansing, that's what I'm calling it," he said. 

Brian Marchal, President of the Lakeview Polar Bear Club, is no stranger to winter swims (he's done 15 of them, including the previous eight run by his club), but admits he was feeling the nerves along with the cold on Saturday.  "It's so damn cold," said Marchal, who donned a Speedo for the event, explaining that "I might as well go all out if I'm doing it." 

"Last year it was 60 degrees," said Marchal. "I think it's a little colder than people thought it would be today."
 
Marchal founded the LPBC when he moved to Chicago ten years ago and the club took its first plunge into the lake On New Year's Day 2002. "I convinced a bunch of friends to do it with me and we've been doing it ever since," he said. 

Marchal and his friends used their inaugural event to raise money for another friend who needed a lung transplant.  "We figured there were probably other people out there who would do the same," he said.  LPBC combined their love for the plunge and helping others and now uses the event to raise money which helps Chicago families in need. 

While some LPBC members were walking the beach selling raffles tickets to raise money Saturday, others were out at 9:30 am to pick apart the frozen lake and clear a spot for the brave souls who dared to show.

Two of those first brave souls to show were Marchal's cousin, Phil Douglas, and his roommate, Marc Monnin.  Both men, who traveled from Ohio for what Douglas calls "a good cause," are veterans when it comes to getting in the water.  "It's not as bad as you think," said Monnin. 

Tell that to rookies JP Deaton, a Chicago native, and his friend Brandon Galloway, who flew in from Houston for a weekend trip the night before.  "What a better way to introduce him to Chicago than a jump in Lake Michigan," said Deaton.  "We thought it was a good idea last night when we made the bet," explained Deaton.

Galloway added that they probably didn't have all of their wits about them at the time, but now that they were at the beach "we might as well just do it," he said.  

Around noon, waves of brave swimmers ran in (and immediately out) of the lake.   "It was amazing!" said Kendra Webster, who took the plunge with her friend Kiron Croce.  When asked why they did it, they both replied: "you only live once!"

Deaton and Galloway also enjoyed their first Polar Plunge experience, although neither could feel their toes after.  "I would absolutely do it again," said Deaton.

A few feet away, Bettes was also enjoying the moment, except he couldn't wait until next year to jump in again; he went back for more and braved a second swim.  "It was awesome.  But freezing cold!" he said.
 
The Polar Plunge concluded with an after party at Galway Bay Pub Saturday night.  For more information visit the LPBC website.

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