Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Polar bears of the Midwest

by Rob Ireland

January 05, 2012

WILLIAMS BAY — Watching from the shore, onlookers may have felt an empathetic chill travel up their spines as dozens of people ran into the freezing water of Geneva Lake.

Those who participate in the Polar Plunge call it refreshing, exhilarating and the best way to ring in the new year. Others call it crazy.

Michael Stoner, his wife, in-laws and friends began the tradition about 27 years ago, which has now grown into a bone-chilling phenomenon.

During the past 27 years, Stoner said he has only missed two years — that was because the lake was frozen over.

Although Stoner said this tradition has never caused him a bout with hypothermia, it hasn't left him completely unscathed.

"Last year was brutal. Last year was absolutely brutal," he said. "One year we had to walk through the ice and our calves got cut up. That was a bad year."

Michael has passed the tradition on to his son, Sam.

Sam said he began jumping in the water because his parents have always done it.

"They started it when they were young kids and they would come here to sober up a little bit and the tradition was passed on to us, not the drinking part, but the diving in part," he said.

Sam has even convinced some of his friends to join him in the water.

"I've been recruited and I love it," Kevin Gray said. "It really purges out all the toxins and is a lot of fun."

Miami resident Maureen Orrantia, who was sporting a thick winter coat and hat, came out to the beach to watch people jump into the water.

"It's too cold in Miami to jump in the water right now, I can't imagine I would come out alive here," Orrantia said.

The Floridian also thought it was strange to dive into the ice cold water.

"I think Midwesterners are a little crazier than Latins," she said.

Bill Strukel and his daughter Grace, who were both shaking a little as water dripped from their hair, disagreed about whether it was worthwhile to jump into the water.

Shortly after exiting the water, Bill said he hadn't made up his mind on whether it was a good experience.

However, there was no doubt in Grace's mind. When asked if it was worth jumping in, a freezing Grace succinctly answered, "No."