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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Scores turn out for cold New Year’s Day tradition

They were light blue going in, and they came back out in various shades of pink.

New Year’s Day about 200 people gathered on Sanders Beach for the traditional Polar Bear Plunge into the icy waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Fat snowflakes were flying so densely that swimmers’ views of the lake were obscured, and the beach was covered in knee-deep snow.

Friends Katelynn Zabransky, Alissa Smith and Carly Rosenthal – all 16 – huddled under fleece blankets and towels, with their feet still warm in winter boots, waiting for the official noon start.

“We’re going to lock arms, run in there, dunk under and run out,” said Smith. She’d done the Plunge four or five times already and persuaded her friends to come along.

“It’s my first time, but it seemed like a great thing to do,” said Zabransky, shivering.

Rosenthal, who had goose bumps on her cheeks, agreed: “Alissa talked us into it.”

And in they went.

Paul Michalowicz served as timekeeper, ringing a cowbell and yelling out the official Polar Bear Plunge time during the countdown to noon.

“I’m a 16-timer,” Michalowicz said. “I’ve done all of them.” He brought his son Jason, who was going in for the fifth time.

Michalowicz was a little concerned that the heavy snow would keep swimmers away, but as the official clock ticked closer to noon, wannabe polar bears left their warm cars and braved the bone-chilling walk to the water’s edge.

One swimmer dressed as Elvis. Another was sporting full clown regalia, but most wore regular swimwear and robes. Aqua Socks and Teva sandals were popular footwear on the rocky beach.

Renae Bopray and Christin Dye were there for the first time. Colleagues at Sacred Heart Hospital, they said the Polar Bear Plunge had come up over lunch.

“I’ve watched it before and we just decided to do it,” Bopray said, looking slightly regretful as she wriggled out of her fleece jacket. “Afterward, we’ll find some warm food, curl up in a blanket and maybe watch a movie later on.”

Hesitantly the layers of clothing came off, as winter-pale flesh was exposed to the freezing cold air.

At noon sharp, Michalowicz sent the crowd sprinting into the water, yelping, hollering and screaming.

He had his own special technique: run in, get under, swim, get up on shore, lie down in the snow and make a snow angel – then head in again to rinse the snow off.

“That’s the only right way to do it,” he said. And then he did it.

As swimmers came back ashore, friends and family greeted them with blankets and towels, warm drinks, and flashing cameras.

“This is quite possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” said Bopray, beaming a huge smile, when she came back on shore.

“This was great.”

Pia Hallenberg Christensen can be reached at (509) 459-5427 or

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