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Rookies, regulars take plunge

Icy St. Joe River welcomes about 200 Jan. 1 revelers

After scores of other swimmers had waded into the St. Joseph River and scrambled out as part of Tuesday’s Polar Bear Plunge, Judy Bireley took her turn in the chilly water.

“We always wait for the rookies to go down, to run in and run out, because us veterans have learned that they’ll knock you down trying to get out and get to their towels,” she said while wrapped in her own towel, standing on the boat landing at Johnny Appleseed Park.

It was Bireley’s 27th plunge to celebrate the New Year. This time, she brought her 5-year-old yellow Lab, Sandy, along for the swim.

“I had to convince her to go in, but she did get all four paws wet. She loves to swim in the summer, but in the winter, no thanks,” the 56-year-old said.

Dave Bieberich, an organizer of the plunge, estimated that about 200 people took part in the annual event, which turned 40 this year.

“As warm as it is, I’m sure we got that many,” he said.

The plunge happened at 2 p.m. when the air temperature was 28 degrees, slightly below average for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service.

The edges of the river were crusted with ice, and snow covered the banks, but to the swimmers’ advantage, the sun was shining and the wind was minimal.

“It’s cold. I don’t care what you say,” Ken Millikan said as he stood by his car trying to warm up.

Still wet from the swim, Millikan pulled blue windpants over his floral-print trunks.

“The secret is not to wear anymore clothes than necessary, so that way the water won’t retain,” he said. “I’ve learned that over the years.”

Millikan, 63, made his 25th plunge this year. He’s a member of the Fort Wayne Polar Bears, a loosely organized club that organizes the event.

“We meet once a year. We have no money. We have no officers. We have no fundraisers. People come and have a good time,” he said. “It doesn’t get anymore more purer than that.”

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