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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Polar Bear Swim began with Gilliar '98's efforts

As this year's Polar Bear Swim commences at the stroke of noon today, most participants and onlookers will not think to imagine a Winter Carnival without the bone-chilling plunge in which 150 to 300 students, harnessed by a rope, jump into a hole cut in the ice of Occum Pond.

For all the popularity of the swim, most do not realize that this "tradition" began quite recently with the zealous dedication of Rachel R. Gilliar '98.

The very first real Polar Bear Swim, in 1994, was not a formal affair as it lacked many aspects of today's officially sanctioned event.

"Legends" of Polar Bear Swims prior to 1994 refer to secretive, small-scale events; thus the tradition, as a widely known event, began with her efforts, Gilliar said.

As a freshman, Gilliar volunteered to develop the Polar Bear Swim into a serious Winter Carnival activity, she told The Dartmouth.

"I was a swimmer in high school, and some friends said this might be an exciting thing to do" she said.

"We did a lot of things that were breaking the rules," Gilliar said of the first Swim.

"We didn't inform Safety and Security or any other officials... we had no permission [for the event] and no one to supervise us," she said.

Gilliar added that even the chainsaw used to drill the hole in the ice was used without a permit.

"I did have a rope attached to people, but in terms of any [safety precautions] the College would expect, they were not there," she said.

A typical reaction to the whole event might be, "why on Earth would anyone soak themselves in muddy ice water on purpose?"

In 1998, maybe the attraction was the free commemorative polar bear buttons and Dartmouth Green towels, donated by Martha Stewart, for the first 200 participants.

Aside from that, answers to this question are not the most logical statements ever heard.

Some people relish the raw adrenal thrills of the Swim, Gilliar included.

"The core of the appeal, firstly, is that it is obviously completely nuts," Gilliar said.

For Adam Tapley '03, the allure was almost metaphysical.

"It was something shocking, I guess," he said of his rationale in participating last year.

"It goes along with the partying of the whole Winter Carnival. I've always wanted to do a polar swim. It seemed completely crazy and fun at the same time," Tapley said.

Contrary to what one might think, according to Tapley, a Polar Bear Swimmer actually feels warm after leaving the numbing-cold water of Occum Pond.

"Probably the worst [cold] was standing on the ice. But once you jump in, after that, nothing matters anymore...there is kind of a euphoric feeling after you get out," he explained.

Still, many community members express wonder that anyone will leap in of their own free will.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin referred to those who take the Occom plunge as "mad souls."

"I'll go to Occum and watch, but you won't see me in [the water]," a member of the '02 class said.

Another '02 indicated that he didn't want to dive in because he "didn't want to get sick for swim practice."

Occasionally, spectators have gotten more than they bargained for, becoming part of the soggy spectacle they came to witness.

In 1997, for example, several guests to the College became unwilling participants in the Polar Bear Swim when they fell through the ice on Occom Pond.

Marc Resteghini '99 said his parents were the first in the water at the Polar Bear Swim when they fell through the ice on their way across the pond.

"All of a sudden, I turned around, and my parents were up to their shoulders in ice," Resteghini told The Dartmouth at the time.

He said that a stranger saved his parents by helping to pull them out of the water.

Gilliar said her father also got a chance to brave the cold when a layer of ice broke while he was walking across the pond, leaving him knee-deep in the water.

The Polar Bear Swim, which some say is the most viable, important continuing ritual of the Carnival weekend, seems to thrive on just that spirit of adventure: A balance between thrill-seeking and continuing on the frameworks of tradition.

Gilliar remembered the sweet moment when she knew that her project was a success, destined for a permanent spot in the rituals of Dartmouth students long into the future.

"I think that at Dartmouth, building a tradition takes four years. By the fourth year [1998] I heard people say, 'oh, you have to do it -- it's a tradition!'"